How one views his latest film will depend on whether one believes Woody Allen to be calculating or oblivious in his trajectory, for Cassandra’s Dream seems at once a tossed-off follow-up designed to capitalize on his late-career critical success Match Point and just another in a long line of genre experiments and Dostoevsky riffs. And so much is done so wrong in Cassandra’s Dream that it’s all too easy to ignore what’s done right. Now in the long latter-day stretch of his career, Woody Allen’s mixing it up with abandon; yet whereas during his last most fecund, thematically varied period, the eighties, he was still attuning his films to character and relationships, fluctuating between slapstick and pathos with great ease (kooky Borscht-belt Broadway Danny Rose led to the poignant nostalgia of Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days, the fine neuroses of Hannah and Her Sisters and the somber wistfulness of September and Another Woman), now he goes broader, and the motions are more herky-jerky as he plummets from the buoyant, forced whimsy of Scoop to the despairing depths of Cassandra’s Dream. Furthermore, he seems less and less interested in character: one couldn’t help but see Match Point’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson as anonymous, almost cardboard stand-ins for Woody’s lofty ideas on fate, chance, crime, punishment, etc. His recent films have been high concept, more fixated on their own themes than the inner workings of the people that navigate them. This is why even when the narratives work, there’s a core missing, something’s detached.
In deployment, Cassandra’s Dream isn’t territory we’re accustomed to, even for “serious Woody.” Like Match Point this is again something like Chabrol, in its murder, guilt, and deception springing from upward mobility and pangs of class resentment (Allen specialties), yet replacing that film’s fascination with elegantly appointed upscale interiors and garden parties is Woody’s stab at capturing working-class London, a backdrop for a surprisingly overwrought Greek tragedy–aping tale of two brothers torn apart by greed, murder, lust. The narrative is preposterous, the characters are garrulous in all the wrong ways (Allen likes to underline his own themes in his films of late; it’s doubtful that Ewan McGregor’s Ian would be self-aware enough to lust after a bird by saying, “She’s working class, but classy”), and as a screenwriter Allen shows a strange hesitancy to deal with the minutiae of his characters’ lives. Of course this is probably because he knows absolutely nothing about working-class London, he merely fetishizes it, his only understanding evidently coming from what he’s seen in other movies (he even casts a Mike Leigh regular, Sally Hawkins, in a main role—and damned if she doesn’t steal every scene she’s in, with a role that’s barely even on the page). There’s nary a hint of authenticity in the film, just a series of strained encounters meant to give voice to financial desperation and loutish, laddish behavior. It also can’t be stressed enough just how disconcerting (and unusually rewarding) it is to hear a new Philip Glass composition as a pulsating score for a Woody Allen film; the templated glissando and insistent rhythms are predictably there, yet they create an odd, not wholly unwelcome effect when paired with Allen’s practiced, greatly immobile camerawork, like trying to propel a boulder with a slingshot.
The sheer oddness of putting Woody in these slummy new digs does produce some riches. Though the filmmaking is often lazy (or if we’re being generous, “workmanlike”), especially in its bizarrely truncated climax, presumably the result of Woody not shooting much coverage, the film is also largely compelling in its construction, and its glibness in how it treats its central murder is genuinely disturbing. And the film’s most persuasive excuse for its existence is, surprisingly, Colin Farrell as Ian’s brother, Terry, a sweet-souled small-time gambler who gets in over his head and is taken advantage of by his brother and nefarious uncle (Tom Wilkinson, doing his usual big-boned huffing and puffing). With two eyebrows more expressive than most actors’ four limbs, Farrell’s puckered nonchalance for once seems ingratiating and sympathetic rather than studied and preening; and bonus points for not having to hear him chew his way through an American accent. Just when the film seems to fall into an overly academic Greek symmetry, Farrell keeps the film human. He’s a bundle of nerves, fears, and neuroses that, for once in a Woody Allen film, seem to not be imitative of his director’s.