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‘Match Point’ serves for victory

It’s back. After battling for more than a decade to make even a halfway decent film, Woody Allen has stumbled across his talent again. And for the New Yorker who has made his career, and slowly undone it over the past ten years, with New York films about New York people, it was lurking in the most unlikely of places – London.

Together with the change in setting has come a complete change in style, so dramatic in fact that you’re never really aware you’re watching an Allen movie. There’s no neurotic, unattractive Jewish man, no psychiatrists, no rambling monologues, and no comedy (or failed attempts at it). The only real giveaways are the lust and the sex. Oh, and the beautiful seductress (this time played by Scarlett Johansson).

She plays the sensual Nola, an American actress living in the English capital, who’s latched onto high society boy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Working for daddy’s firm, he’s quite the man about town while still partaking of such civilised pursuits as playing tennis at the local club – where he gets coaching from former pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The two become firm friends, and the charming Wilton soon marries Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).

But there’s one small problem: Nola. While the ruthlessly determined Chris is desperate to cling to the new life his marriage into wealth has given him, he’s fallen for the failed actress.

They share the same humble beginnings, true, but what it really comes down to is physical attraction. Nola is sexy, Chloe is not. She’s sweet but in a damp squib ‘daddy I want a pony’ kind of way and, frankly, Chris is bored of the wife, if not the new life.

An affair ensues even as the routine of working for daddy-in-law, enjoying classical music, and going hunting in the country continues. It’s all so very English.

And so the story with its gentle social commentary potters along unassumingly, like a game of croquet, towards what you think will be an equally non-descript ending. But then Allen pulls the proverbial rug out from under your feet with a twist that, while not entirely unexpected, is startling within the context. Instantly the babbling brook is transformed into the Niagra Falls. Well, almost.

By drawing parallels with the operas they so love watching (the passion, the jealousy, the betrayal, the tragedy) and finally delivering on the recurring metaphor of luck as a tennis ball that can fall on either side of the net, the writer-director keeps the improbabilities in check. Which doesn’t mean he backs away from pushing the tension and suspense to near improbable heights, though – this is a film after all, and one that benefits greatly from its sudden transformation.

But as well as Allen manages this conversion, he would have been left stranded without the contributions of his four leads – especially Johansson and Rhys Meyers. Her Nola is as powerful a sexual predator as she is a petulant, demanding, insecure little girl; his Chris is the ultimate self-serving cad, leading her on and repeatedly lying about his intentions, and yet we manage to feel something for the pig.

These are sublime performances supported by almost as impressive writing and direction. A few false endings could have been trimmed from the final minutes, but ‘Match Point’ finds Allen with the luck on his side, serving for victory.

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