If Alfred Hitchcock were to direct a screenplay written by Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Stanislaw Lem, and based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, the result would be something like Woody Allen’s latest opus, Match Point. A dark fable about the vagaries of chance in a godless world, Allen’s straightforward, aesthetically old-fashioned crime drama belies a hauntingly complex turn-of-the-millennium sensibility.
Set in London, the basic plot of Match Point replicates certain key elements found in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: After experiencing the joys of wealth and high social standing (read: power), an ambitious petit bourgeois resorts to whatever it takes to maintain his newfound status.
Between the lines of its critique of class inequality and materialism, Match Point dissects a whole array of human emotions – love, lust, devotion, deceit, guilt, generosity, selfishness – reaching the conclusion that, in the final scheme of things, what we do, think, and feel have only a relatively small effect on the outcome of our lives. In Allen’s London, chance meetings, chance neighbors, and chance thieves are supposed to play a more important part in the destiny of its denizens than their own deeds, whether good or evil.
“The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’” explains Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in the film’s first scene, “saw deeply into life.” As a tennis ball travels in slow motion between the two sides of a net, the narrator continues, “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win … or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.”
Hard work, we learn right away, will take you only as far as luck will allow it. That point, in fact, is quietly – and cleverly – reiterated near the end of Match Point, but with a radically different significance.
Luck is what Chris Wilton needs. A former tennis pro who was never good enough to become a champ, the carefully manicured Chris has now resorted to giving tennis lessons to wealthy Londoners in order to make ends meet.
As luck would have it, one of his students turn out to be Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a friendly, upper-class chap who takes a liking to Chris, especially after discovering their mutual love of opera. Although it may seem at first that a homosexual romance will follow, what actually happens is that Tom’s pretty sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), immediately becomes enamored of the hunky Chris, who besides being familiar with Verdi’s music also happens to enjoy classical literature. (At one point, he’s reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.) Shortly thereafter, the two become engaged.
All seems to be going well for Chris, including a new job at the firm of the Hewett patriarch, Alec (Brian Cox); the only glitch is that Chris has fallen madly in lust with Tom’s girlfriend, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress with both a checkered past and lips as full and sensuous as his own. Known as an aggressive player on the tennis court, the Irishman Chris is no less aggressive in English drawing rooms.
Therein lies Chris’ moral conflict. In addition to the financial and professional prospects Chloe and her family have to offer, Chris seems to genuinely like Chloe – while pining for the body of her brother’s girlfriend. On a rainy afternoon at the Hewett’s country estate, he finally manages to satisfy his sexual urges, but Nola disappears from view after she and Tom part ways.
Months later, a chance encounter brings Chris, now a married man, and Nola together again. At first reluctant to resume their sexual liaison, Nola eventually relents. They begin a torrid affair that will have tragic consequences.
Allen’s creatures in Match Point are supposed to come across as pawns of destiny. Much of what they do is beyond their control, whether blindly falling in love with a man who happens to lust after another woman, or becoming sexually obsessed with a neurotic American actress. “Chance genetic (or socially conditioned) behavior,” one might call it.
Along those philosophical lines, one crucial element in Match Point is that Allen never turns either Chris or Nola into outright villains. Chris remains an ambiguous entity throughout. We may suspect but can never quite tell for sure if his love of opera and classical literature is genuine, or if it’s merely a calculated attempt to improve his social status; additionally, it’s never quite clear how much Chris actually cares for Chloe. Nola, for her part, is both pursued and pursuer, while Chloe and her family are hardly a bunch of spoiled rich idiots. In fact, they are generous and open-minded, even if terrible judges of character.
Part of the credit for such complexities goes to Allen, who’s able to delve into human behavior that is as old as time, but that in Match Point feels as fresh as today’s news. The rest of the credit goes to his capable cast.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s Match Point
Emmy nominee Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a sort of Irish Joaquin Phoenix, brings to Chris the required mix of vulnerability, self-resilience, and obsession – mercifully without any Allenesque mannerisms. Although no more than competent in the first half of the film, Rhys Meyers’ acting skills seem to evolve so as to match his character’s increasing sense of despair.
Alternating with equal ease between femme fatale, sex object, and neurotic nag, Scarlett Johansson delivers what is quite possibly her most effective film performance to date. Both Emily Mortimer and Matthew Goode, a stage-trained actor who’s a (more likable) cross between Hugh Grant and Rupert Everett, provide solid support as the Hewett siblings – too privileged to be distrustful, too likable to be despicable – and so does Brian Cox as the generous Hewett patriarch. Yet, Penelope Wilton is the one who steals the show whenever she’s on screen. A milder, British version of the domineering mothers of several of Woody Allen’s New York-based comedies, Wilton’s outspoken matriarch is always meddling in her children’s affairs.
Now, much has been said about Woody Allen having returned to form with Match Point, the director’s first non-American production shot overseas, but that is only partly true. Though certainly the best Allen effort since the 1994 black comedy Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point is unlike anything the director has done before.
In spite of certain similarities with his superior 1989 comedy-drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point is basically a drama (with quirky humorous bits here and there) and it is less about divine justice – or lack thereof – than it is about the lack of a divinity, period. And though nearly as “serious” as his Ingmar Bergman-inspired dramas such as Interiors and Another Woman, Match Point is less about interpersonal relationships than it is about the machinations of fate.
In any case, what matters is that despite its lengthy 124-minute running time, Match Point never sags. Instead, Allen’s tight rein allows the drama to play out like a slow-burning, pardon the oxymoron, well-lit film noir. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (whose previous works include films as diverse as Elizabeth and About a Boy) uses soft colors, grays, and pastels to capture the British ambiance, while editor Alisa Lepselter, who has worked in all of Allen’s latest films, carefully builds up the pacing so as to maximize the impact of the film’s epilogue. The final twenty minutes, in particular, are as tautly controlled as the climax in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal.
But does Allen fully succeed in making his philosophical point? Well, not quite, for Match Point contains numerous elements that betray Allen’s premise that we’re all particles of dust floating in the void of a random universe. For instance, Chris’ predicament is a direct result of his decision to jump into a marriage of convenience. Unlike his burning desire for Nola, his marriage to Chloe is a choice.
Additionally, his advances in the firm may be in good part the result of his personal association with the Hewett patriarch, but it is also the consequence of Chris’ determination to succeed. He goes to work every day, he attends meetings; and he displays an innate talent for dealing with the company’s clients. The means he uses to solve his Chloe vs. Nola dilemma is also a logical – if, shall we say, highly questionable – choice. In other words, Chris’ initial success and eventual tragedy are to a large extent of his own making. What happens after he has set things in motion may be a matter of chance, but those events take place only because Chris has actively gotten the ball rolling.
Chance may bring people and circumstances into our lives, but fatalities and assorted catastrophes aside it is ultimately up to us to makethe best – or the worst – of what comes our way. Whether chance or a film distributor brings Match Point to your local theater, it is up to you to make the best of it by going to see this fine, intelligent film.
MATCH POINT (2005). Dir. / Scr.: Woody Allen. Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton.
Note: A version of this Match Point review was initially posted in December ’05.