Match Point (12A)

ANDREW CLARKE They say that a change is as good as a rest and this is certainly true for New York's finest film-maker Woody Allen, who has been going through something of a creative crisis of late.


They say that a change is as good as a rest and this is certainly true for New York's finest film-maker Woody Allen, who has been going through something of a creative crisis of late. Several of his recent films have only had a severely limited release and one, Hollywood Endings, wasn't shown in the UK at all. The last film of his that could be considered a genuine success was Small Time Crooks back in 2000 - that's five films ago for the ever-busy Mr Allen.

Woody's lack of success in the States has been an even bigger problem - his last big hit in the USA was as long ago as 1989 with Crimes and Misdemeanors. Financiers don't care if you are big in Europe or break admission records in Paris, if you aren't raking in millions of dollars in Wisconsin then funding for movies becomes problematical. This has been increasingly the case for Woody Allen in recent years with long-standing professional relationships breaking down in the US.

The situation has not been helped with his workaholic production schedule. He turns out three films for every other director's one.

Crisis point was reached a couple of years ago when his US funders finally called it a day and Woody was forced to look elsewhere for funding on a film-by-film basis. However, the air of uncertainty which has dogged his movies in recent years has come to an end with a new development deal with the BBC.

As a result, his movies have moved out of New York for the first time in his career and set up home in London - and it's given the notoriously nervy director just the creative kick that he has needed because his new film Match Point is his best work for more than 10 years.

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It's also the first film where there's no obvious Woody Allen character. Woody has been appearing less and less in his own films in recent years, but there has always been the obvious Woody Allen role that he would have played if he were younger - the smart-talking, wisecracking nerd that he has built his career around.

Match Point breaks new ground by sidelining the smart dialogue for a rich social tapestry which blends illicit romance with film noir.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a former professional tennis player who is coming to terms with life outside the tennis circuit. He lands a job as an instructor at an exclusive London tennis club and strikes up a friendship with a rich, young city broker Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) who introduces him to his sister Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer) and the pair start dating and eventually marry. What muddies the waters is the fact that Chris is having a steamy affair with Tom's fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Nola, a struggling actress, wants commitment from Chris who is unwilling to give it. Not only does he have a comfortable life with his wife, his economic future is also tied up with her. Her father (Brian Cox) is a successful, incredibly rich, businessman and has created a job for Chris within his firm and Chris is unwilling to risk his professional future by leaving his wife for an impoverished actress.

At one point it looks as if the film is going to turn into a re-run of Fatal Attraction, but Woody Allen is too clever a director and too original a writer to let that happen and he neatly sidesteps the whole clichéd mistress-from-hell scenario and turns the situation into something much darker and more original.

Both Emily Mortimer and Scarlett Johansson deliver wonderfully naturalistic performances which keeps the film grounded in the real world - particularly when so much of the story is set against a very privileged backdrop. But the film rests very much on the shoulders of Jonathan Rhys Meyers who creates a character that the audience finds itself identifying with - even though he is an awful, amoral, thoroughly reprehensible character. He somehow manages to find enough private regret to keep an audience on his side - if only to see what happens to him.

The film opens with a voiceover from Rhys Myers as Chris expressing the notion that he would rather be lucky than good any day. This is articulated as we watch a tennis ball going backwards and forwards over a net until the ball clips the top and Allen freeze frames the ball in mid-air allowing us to decide whether it will fall backwards and lose the point or fall forwards and win.

It is this element of good fortune which informs everything that follows and gives the film an edge and a genuine feeling of film noir.

Match Point is a dark tale, brilliantly told and has a couple of excellent twists along the way which will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. An excellent return to form for the talented Woody Allen.



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