Then You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger was released in UK cinemas eventually, but left them fast enough that I didn’t have a chance to go. Inevitably, Warner Bros decided to release it just to dvd, but after the Vicky Cristina Barcelona debarkle when I rushed to buy it in the lesser format before a cheaper BD came out six months later and the Whatever Works mess I decided to wait. And wait. And wait. But with Midnight In Paris garlanding a few nominations and awards here and there and for the purposes of this project having to watch Stranger first, I buckled and bought the dvd from ebay last week. I watched it late last night after spending the evening waiting for The 10 O’clock Show only to realise it was the wrong night. As ever the following is more of a spoilery analysis than a review.
Now The film opens paraphrasing Shakespeare. Badly. The narrator (Zak Orth who was Adam in Vicky Cristina Barcelona says: "Shakespeare said life was full of sound and fury and in the end signified nothing." It’s an odd way to begin, especially since if it was Woody’s thematic mission statement, it’s one of the few things he succeeded in. For all the good performances and excellent photography (by Vilmos Zsigmond returning from Cassandra’s Dream and Melinda and Melinda), the only time I laughed was after spotting one of the numerous odd cameos and although it’s not by any measure his worst film, it’s disappointing that my low expectations were so conclusively met.
Marinating overnight on why that is, the only conclusion I can draw is that it’s a drama script that’s generally been shot and performed like a comedy. While there’s a Chaucerian tone to Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) swapping his long standing wife for a prostitute, that ultimately spins out into darker territory. The bitter dissolution of Sally (Naomi Watts) and Roy's (Josh Brolin) marriage isn’t leavened by the former’s indecision over a suitor or the latter’s existential angst and taking advantage of his friend’s misfortune. Helena's (Gemma Jones) search for love and being taking advantage of by a clairvoyant who everyone knows is a fraud is simply upsetting. Until it become irritatingly repetitive.
But as I’m writing this, I'm considering if my initial reaction to the film has been skewed by the marketing and publicity. Certainly the trailer suggests this is one of his light comedies, replete as it is with jokoids and the design of the uk poster and quote on the dvd box “… very funny, my favourite Woody Allen in years” (albeit from that august organ the Sunday Express). Yet, the more I turn these ninety minutes over in my memory, the more I realise that the most effective scenes are of straight out drama and I conjecture if I’d watched the film with that attitude, the one which takes a deep breath before revisiting Interiors, my reaction might have been different.
There’s some great dramatic weight to Sally’s story, helped by Watt's fearless performance, with its subtext of fading beauty. The scene in the car after Sally’s date with Greg, her boss (Antonio Banderas) in which he drunkenly complements her before a romantic moment agonisingly recedes. Her sullen reaction on hearing that artist Iris (Anna Friel with a bizarre "oirish" accent) is enjoying an affair with the same man. When her mother convinces her to try to rekindle those feelings with Greg as she leaves her job as his assistant to set up her own gallery, only to discover that she’s making a fool of herself in the face of his lack of interest. Finally, her painful, pleading desperation when the loan her mother promised won’t be forthcoming.
Perhaps if, like Another Woman, Woody had made this the definitive dramatic nucleus of the film, it might not have become quite as directionless as it is otherwise. That could also be said of author Roy’s decision to steal his friend’s manuscript, a big enough idea for a whole hour and a half but barely given enough room to develop amid his romancing of musician Dia (Frida Pinto) in which he generally comes across as sadly rather creepy in what’s presumably meant to be Allen’s avatar. Similarly, it’s impossible to watch Roy’s stupid old man routine without wondering what that business might have been like stretched to film length – then remembering we’ve already somewhat seen that in Mighty Aphrodite.
Both of these stories are an iteration of a familiar theme – the older man and the beautiful younger woman and though Woody grants Dia some intelligence in an attempt to make that coupling more equal, Lucy Punch’s Charmaine is a cartoon character and unlike Mira Sorvino’s Linda Ash not granted much shade or back story to underpin her utter dislocation from the reality of this film's world. Like Tim Roth in Everyone Says I Love You, or all of the characters in Small Time Crooks, it’s Woody once again trying to spin comedy from the working classes with none of the affection or sympathy of his Take The Money and Run days. The moment when we’re supposed to laugh at Sally and Roy’s reaction to Punch at the concert is deeply problematic for that reason.
Just an aside, it's almost impossible to imagine what Nicole Kidman would have done with the role, assuming it was as is before she walked to make Rabbit Hole. You could infer she decided to look elsewhere because Woody went in a direction she wasn't expecting, but given some of the comedies she has fulfilled her contractual obligation to like The Stepford Wives, The Invasion and Just Go With It (for goodness sake) that's not entirely certain. It has been rumoured (not that I can find a citation) that the film was actually substantially rewritten after Kidman left, which would explain a lot. We can only wonder what the character was like before.
The conclusion of that story is awful. Alfie’s discovery of his wife In flagrante delicto is haphazardly shot, his roughing up horrible rather than funny. The following scene in which Charmaine reveals her pregnancy even dips over into light misogyny when the script has her suggest rape as the reason for her behaviour and Alfie won’t take her word for it that he’s the father, throwing phrases like DNA test around like a researcher on The Jeremy Kyle Show and after all but threatening her, regarding her with the expression Hopkins used to employ when his Lector was sizing up a good meal. Then the storyline is parked, along with Sally and Roy individual stories left totally unresolved (another of the film’s failures).
Helena's story too is a wild contrast to Woody's previous utilisations of the occult. Pauline Collins's clairvoyant reminds us of Julie Kavner's similar role in Oedipus Wrecks, but this is very much a secular approach in which the strongly held beliefs which Sally has essentially helped to foster in her mother as a coping mechanism after her divorce from Roy are treated as bunk and more than that are the cause of the daughter ultimate financial downfall. They do bring Helena happiness, but at the expense of her daughters, unlike in a piece like Alice in which mysticism eventually lead the titular character to some kind of peaceful ending.
With all of that said, let’s do some project related housekeeping. This is Woody’s first multi-protagonist mass ensemble film since Everyone Says I Love You. After his sojourns to Spain and New York, he’s back to the fantasy London of Cassandra’s Dream, Match Point and especially Scoop with which it shares an interest in the lesser known parts of the city. Like those previous films, none of the speech patterns are quite right, an outsider’s idea of how British people might speak in this case interpreted by amongst others Watts doing a pretty good cut glass English accent, now and then with an Australian lilt. Only Brolin ever sounds comfortable, just as he should having been allowed to play Roy with his own voice.
The big casting twist is Antonio Banderas who last glanced at this fiolmic universe when he appeared in the Allenesque Miami Rhapsody. As well as Collins, there also the usual collection of local talent. Beyond the aforementioned leads, Meera Syal as Dia’s mother, Philip “Hunt” Glennister and Christian “Welles” McKay and (a returning from Match Point) Ewan “Spud” Bremnar as Roy’s poker buddies, Alex MacQueen as his publisher, Fenella Woolgar as Sally’s new business partner and Lynda Baron as a prospective date for Alfie. Also in it from Doctor Who are Natalie Walter who was Alice in Turn Left and The Shakespeare Code’s Doomfinger, Amanda Lawrence.
Having spent the best part of three hours writing these thousand words and thinking about the film again, I am tempted to give it another look and see if with fresh eyes I might agree with the other box quote, from Woman’s Own, that it’s “Woody’s best film in years”. As with the other films in this series, revisiting them after a period often illuminates elements like how Woody employs his music. Perhaps I'll update this entry when I have. But not yet, not until I’ve seen Midnight In Paris with its biggest box office ever and Best Picture nominations and marketing campaign which from I hear captures the mood of the film perfectly.