After the unusually contemporary drama of Blue Jasmine, we’re back to a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of typical Woodyisms which we saw in Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love. There’s a scratchy recording of a Cole Porter song over the opening titles (You Do Something to Me); there’s a 1920s setting; there’s magic; and there’s the opposite of magic – atheism. Did this story have to be told in the south of France? Probably not, but it provides its own sense of visual magic which lifts this film above the ordinary.
That story concerns an illusionist and exposer of physic frauds, Stanley (Colin Firth), who is brought to Provence to unmask the chicanery of Sophie (Emma Stone) before she swindles the fortune of a wealthy American family and marries its ukulele-playing heir, Brice (Hamish Linklater). Before long, Stanley too believes Sophie to be the real thing, and proclaims as much to the world. However before the pair can walk off into the magic hour sunset together, there will be more reversals and misdirections – and given how recent this film is I don’t want to spoil anything here.
Suffice to say that watching it for a second time after seeing it at the cinema earlier this year, the misdirections in two key scenes now appear so obvious that I’m ashamed I didn’t pick them up on my first viewing. It’s important to remember that Woody Allen dabbled in magic himself before becoming a comedian, writer and filmmaker, so he is adept at pulling these swictcheroos. I think that’s the technical term.
Instead of looking out for obvious plot points, like most people I was more seduced by the scenery, as shot once again by Darius Khondji. It is bathed in light, and along with the costumes, music and sweetness of Emma Stone, it acts as a counterweight to the hilariously monstrous character portrayed by Colin Firth. I don’t think he received enough credit for this role. He is totally against type and thoroughly unlikeable yet still very entertaining. You want him to find happiness, in spite of himself.
Not everything about the film works for me, such as the age difference between the two leads and the way the script seems to be constantly setting up or recapping the drama. But, as one of his films tackling the big questions of life, death and a universal desire to escape into fantasy (of which there have been many), this one is pretty hard to resist. A key scene in the last act between Firth and and Eileen Atkins (playing his witty, wise Aunt Vanessa) is up there with the best of Noel Coward for me, with the subtext kept simmering until it boils over and poor Stanley sees no option but to completely alter his life. It’s sophisticated and funny writing, perfectly executed.
It may even rank up there with some of the best scenes in Woody Allen’s 50 films as a writer. And compared with where he began with the development in his craft since the slapstick of What’s New Pussycat? 30 years ago, it seems like a fitting end for this retrospective. Magic in the Moonlight wasn’t anywhere near as popular as Blue Jasmine, possibly because so many of the director’s common traits listed above are an acquired taste, or possibly because the director had a lot of bad publicity earlier in the year. Or possibly because it’s just not as good. I liked it enough seeing it once and a lot more seeing it again. That’s probably true of many of the films I watched again this year.
So, this is the final entry of ‘A Woody A Week’ for now, but if Woody Allen is true to his regular pattern (and I think it’s fair to say he is a creature of habit), there will be a new film released some time in 2015. Whatever it is, it’s sure to be either the same, or different, or better, or worse, than every other film he’s made. I think that covers everything.
Thanks for reading!