After the highs of Match Point and the lows of Scoop, would Woody bounce back or doubly disappoint? I remember not thinking much of his next film, Cassandra’s Dream on my first viewing, then really liking it when I watched it again when it was released on DVD. Revisiting it again this week I enjoyed it again, almost in spite of itself.
If the title doesn’t make it super obvious, this is a tale with a touch of Greek tragedy. Terry and Ian are brothers in South London with money trouble – Terry wants to invest in Californian resorts and get out of his father’s restaurant while Ian has just lost a bomb at a high stakes poker game. They approach their wealthy Uncle Howard for help, and he in turn asks his nephews for help – to bump off a corporate snitch who is about to bring him down. Ian is conflicted, while Terry the pragmatist who is enjoying a new life of style with an aspiring actress, Angela, is keen. The deed is done, but is it for family loyalty or personal gain? And does motive really matter when life and death is at play?
This was the third of Woody Allen’s UK-set films, and once again it is surprising on a number of levels. There is the working class setting, the very un-Woody-like dialogue (and un-English too according to several critics) and perhaps most striking, an original score. Apart from the comedy scores by Marvin Hamlisch on his first few films and jazz scores by Dick Hyman on some 80s films, Woody’s soundtracks have been notable for their curation of mostly standards. Cassandra’s Dream on the other hand features an new music specially composed by Phillip Glass.
The score might be the chief reason I have for defending the film. It certainly lifts the levels of suspense and tragedy which the filmmaker clearly intended the film to have. As with most Phillip Glass music, the key adjective is portentous. There is a kind of clockwork melancholy to most of his music, particularly his film music, which for me adds momentum, dimension and a sense of fate – as if the characters are part of a larger story. For a pseudo Greek tragedy, it’s a perfect fit.
The music also delivers a sense of unease, which leads to the other aspect to this film that I like. It seems to me that with Cassandra’s Dream what Woody has crafted, whether he wanted to or not, is a modern film noir. That’s a genre I’m very fond of (and something I’m thinking about for another blog), the best films of which are packed with tragedy and the hand of fate putting the squeeze on people. In this film several classic noir elements are present: characters who “just want to get out from under” to quote The Asphalt Jungle, a one-time crime, an unscrupulous father figure and even a femme fatale. (Though to be fair, in this film the femme isn’t very fatale and while she is tempting and inscrutable, she isn’t part of the murder plot or the brothers’ demise.)
Besides these tropes, Cassandra’s Dream also shares some on-the-nose dialogue with film noir, and it’s this element that audiences either hate or tolerate. I can tolerate it, but I also appreciate that for a writer of occasional brilliance and subtlety, it’s odd to hear so much exposition and motivation in a Woody Allen screenplay. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” the characters ask each other more than once, which isn’t all that necessary since so much of the dialogue is taken up with just that. We always know exactly what everyone is thinking or will do next, since they tell us all the time. And when they don’t tell us, Woody often gives the game away – so when the brothers talk about Bonnie And Clyde early on, it’s not hard to imagine how they will wind up at the end.
Cassandra’s Dream could be Woody Allen’s best genre picture, which is to say it could almost be the work of another filmmaker. It doesn’t have any of the director’s usual trademarks (except perhaps for some anguish over moral choices) and it appears to be more concerned with plot than character. Similarly, the cast members are all fine but not career-defining brilliant. Ewan McGregor is charming and believable as Terry, Colin Farrell is better against type in the jittery milquetoast role of Ian and Tom Wilkinson is great as always as the shady, loveable, evil uncle. It’s a shame that Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins are not given much to do with their roles as the supportive girlfriends in the B-plot.
Yes the plot is fairly obvious, and unbelievable, and the ending is fumbled, not really achieving the grand tragedy set up in the beginning. But the film does have its own unique tone and pace, and like most genre films you can forgive its shortcomings for its entertainment value and sense of itself. It is surprising to find Woody Allen making this kind of film, but what is really interesting to me is that so late in his career that he manages to surprise at all.
Next week: Vicky Christina Barcelona