A return to form for Woody Allen, if ‘form’ means the deep-frozen pompous soap he made circa September and Another Woman. Even those didn’t provoke the tirades of unintentional laughter which rose from a British audience at the preview I caught. It’s a BBC-backed, UK-set mix of Barry Lyndon, The Talented Mr Ripley, Four Weddings and a Funeral and the Crimes side of Crimes and Misdemeanours – though I suspect Allen’s specific model was A Place in the Sun/An American Tragedy.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a well-spoken tennis player who missed the big time, takes work as a coach at an exclusive London coach; the character is supposed to be Irish (like Barry Lyndon), but Meyers aptly lets only a hint of accent slip through in extremis (despite everything, this is a well-acted film). Chris falls in with rich folks through a friendship with casually glamorous pupil Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and winds up marrying his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), after scoring a high-powered job under the patronage of his new father-in-law (Brian Cox) – though he has a fling in the rain with Tom’s American actress fiancee Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) and, when she’s been shoved out of the fold partly thanks to the disapproval of Tom’s mother (Penelope Wilton), begins a more serious affair with her. Chloe has a devil of a time trying to get pregnant and Nola starts to nag Chris about leaving his wife – which prompts American Tragedy-style development as Chris determines to murder Nola in a mock burglary which also involves killing a neighbour (Margaret Tyzack), then sweats as the coppers (James Nesbitt, Ewen Bremner) feel him out as a suspect. The twist is that a slip which seems will get Chris caught actually leads to his getting off scot-free, to settle into the life he has hard-won.
The problem is that this is a film by an American who either believes or pretends to believe in this uppercrust world of galleries and grouse-shooting, of shopping and too-frequent chance meetings; by comparison, Robert Altman in the period-set Gosford Park got deeper, without surrendering as Allen (like Anthony Minghella in Mr Ripley) does to a wish-fulfilment dream of thoroughly nice, entitled if not titled aristos (it would ring truer if the family suspected and approved of Chris’s murderousness). The dialogue is full of howlers, as when Chris, confronted by the guilt-induced spectres of his victims, quotes Sophocles at them. Some of the UK’s most talented comedians – Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton – have micro-bits, but this isn’t supposed to be one of Allen’s funny movies.