Cassandra's Dream is in fact a nightmare

Film “Cassandra's Dream, Woody's next film is slated for a UK release in the new year. Fingers crossed it's a massive success (yeah, right) and then there's a chance that Scoop might yet be seen here and you'll be able to enjoy it for yourself without having to import it from Sweden, like I did.” – From my review of Scoop

It’s difficult to know where to start, so we’ll go skip straight to the end. As the usual cast list appeared at the close of Cassandra’s Dream, even though I was in the comfort of my own freezing bedroom having ironically waited for the dvd release even though this is a Woody Allen film that actually saw a UK cinema release for once, I found myself booing. Boo, I shouted. Boo. Booooo.

I like Woody Allen’s later films. I’m one of the few people who’ll defend Anything Else and thinks that Melinda and Melinda is one of the few watchable Will Ferrell films (other being Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, because he's hardly in it). I know that both Scoop and Match Point have their flaws, but you can at least understand what he was trying to do and it’s fun to watch members of the British acting establishment enjoying the chance to work with the bloke who directed Annie Hall.

But Cassandra’s Dream is rubbish. It might even be offensively bad.

It’s a morality tale, asking whether you would kill a stranger if it meant you could secure your future happiness. Two brothers, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are propositioned by their Uncle to do just that when he needs a key witness in a criminal action against him to disappear. Colin’s a gambler, Ewan’s trying to scale the class wall with the beautifully angular Hayley Atwell looking down upon him from the top so both have loads to gain. So when they’re made the offer they wish they could refuse at about minute fifty you can guess what happens, especially if you’ve also seen Crimes and Misdemeanors. And Match Point for that matter.

The story idea isn’t the problem; Allen’s used Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as sources before and both are referenced somewhere in the dialogue. It’s the execution. At no point are you astonished by the turn of events; though individual scenes might surprise and there’s a rather touching moment involving a phone call from the mother of the condemned man, you already know how everything is going to turn out. Woody might be wanting to show that human nature is entirely predictable and I supposed you can’t criticise a tragedy for presenting an expected outcome. Yet that always works within a framework characters you can at least empathise if not necessarily identify with. We love Hamlet.

But Woodyalso does everything he can to stop the audience from understanding. Firstly, he puts us on the back foot by offering a group of South Londoners speaking dialogue that no human person would say. Having covered the London middle class, Woody’s trying his hand with the mockney, but his grasp of the local cutcha seems based on a few viewings of Snatch and the odd Mike Leigh film. Not that this stops him employing his recent interest in stylised contraction-free banter so that in places this sounds like the cast of Eastenders putting on a production of George Bernard Shaw, which at best is interestingly jarring and at worst patronising, since it suggests that equal poetry can’t be found in more realistic speech.

Plus he fails to direct his actors. Atwell’s reliably good as an social climbing actress but given little to do as is Sally Hawkins as the concerned girlfriend. But Colin Farrell offers what could be a career worst and that includes his mumbling Bullseye in Daredevil. Once the deed is done, he’s called upon to show the mental breakdown of his character as booze and drugs and psychosis take hold. Much of this is shown through crumpled shirt, doubled up, smoking acting, and he just doesn’t seem to be able to get a grip on whatever emotion he's trying to portray in each scene. He also somehow looks physically younger, more like the young chap who liked horses and Emma in Ballykissangel.

Woody’s notorious for not giving much direction in terms of his actors. He says, much like George Lucas in fact, that most of that part of the job is done if he selects the right face. But I fear that Farrell was desperate for some guidance here and probably just did his best when none was forthcoming. He’s probably at the epicentre of the film’s issues. It almost becomes half watchable when McGregor story takes precedence; Ewan underplays everything which helps to balance things out a little bit, though even he gets to sweat and sit still in an attempt to depict inner turmoil.

There are some good elements. When he’s allowed to point his camera at more than a two shot of Colin looking deranged and Ewan looking disappointed, some of Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is amazing, including some absolutely gorgeous shots of the titular boat, bought by the two brothers as a gift to themselves then largely ignored through the rest of the film. The costume design is also conspicuously good but it is a bit worrying that I was marvelling at the fashions instead of wanting to follow the story.

The best scenes are those which have nothing to do with the suspense plot, but are about family – McGregor's guilt at wanting to move on and leave the family business, his Dad's eatery is in some financial difficulties, how they’re all beholden to Wilkinson’s slippery rich uncle. Allen's serious films in the 70s and 80s (Interiors, Another Woman) worked because real human foibles were being discussed in the kind of state of heightened tension which didn't require one of these plot devices we've seen recently, dragged in (presumably wrapped in a carpet) from a suspense thriller.

So my reaction was cumulative. Having read the reviews, including the positive quote on the cover from Jason Solomons (who, let's just say I'm not a fan of), I was prepared for the worst. By minute ten I’d realised it wasn’t great. Philip Glass’s ponderous score dundered on. By minute sixty I was getting angry and wanted to turn if off entirely but soldiered on for old times sake. That only gave way to simple clock watching by ten minutes before the end.

Some films are unwatchable because of a lack of creativity, or conviction, or because it’s a commercial undertaking. Cassandra’s Dream is even more insidious because you know that Woody can be insanely creative, you know that he really means this and that making a commercial film is probably the last thing on his mind. Booo. Booo. Booo.

Still, the benefit of popping out one of these a year means that even though Cassandra's Dream is in fact a nightmare, there's another more critically favoured film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona already waiting for release in the UK again at the actual cinema on 6th February and beyond that his New York return with Whatever Works featuring Larry David this time as his avatar. Perhaps that's what was missing here. I couldn't work out which character would have been played by Woody.


mysterymoor said...

I didn't like this too much either. And I too enjoyed Scoop and Match Point. I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona at the cinema and don't feel like I can comment on it yet even though I watched it months ago. There is no original version cinema in my town, so I had to watch it dubbed. IT WAS ALL DUBBED. Even the bits where the characters speak Spanish were dubbed...into Spanish. It was terrible. I kept reading their lips and thinking "oh, they're speaking Spanish now" or "back to English it is". Rubbish.

Sorry about the rant.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

I can't believe we still live in a world were dubbing is still considered acceptable and even the norm. What's even weirder is that in some cases music is even replaced with some local equivalent; the German soundtrack on the Mystic Pizza dvd replaces some of the Italian music with German pop music sung in German. It's very wrong.

mysterymoor said...

It really is a disgrace. You would think the literacy rates would be high enough by now. Half of the performance is completely lost and it's incredibly annoying for people who know the original language. In Spain for some reason whenever a film is multilingual everything is dubbed in Spanish so that a vital element of the film is lost. I watched Babel last night and I'm pretty sure the Spanish version is ALL in Spanish. What's the point then? It truly angers me. It means I almost never do one of the things I love the most because I end up angry every single time.

Following you on twitter too!

HAHAHA the word verification: RANTHI