Magic in Moonlight: Allen’s Charming, Eccentric Characters

Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s 44th film, is a minor additon to his rich output and a step down from his last two films.

Even so, this light, airless cincoction, is enjoyable and entertaining, a perfect counter-programming to summer’s top guns, all spectacles and sequels.

Two of Allen’s strengths have always been rich characterization and casting the right actors to play the parts, rather than narrative and plot.  In this respect, Magic in the Moonlight is no exception.

Colin Firth (Oscar Winner for The King’s Speech) as Stanley

Stanley is both world-famous and anonymous – nobody knows the true identity of the great Wei Ling Soo – he presents himself in the Catledge home as a businessman named Stanley Taplinger. As an elite and cultivated British man, Stanley is not impressed by Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Americans that come from a very poor background.

Says Colin Firth: “He considers her to be an inconsequential street urchin and he thinks it will be absolutely no problem to unmask her as a fake.”

Much to his surprise, Stanley discovers that Sophie is able to get mental pictures and impressions about people, their pasts, and their departed loved ones, that he finds impossible to explain. Despite how closely Stanley scrutinizes her every move, Sophie continues to surprise and bewilder him. She tells him about events in his life she couldn’t possibly know about. Instead of him discrediting her, it is Sophie who unmasks him as Wei Ling Soo.

Undeterred by apparent proof to the contrary, Stanley remains convinced that she is unconditionally a fraud and that he will soon find her out. “Stanley challenges her a lot but Sophie knows she can consistently shock him.” says Stone. “That gives her power. I also think she finds him really charming so she turns on a kind of schoolyard teasing with him.”

Sophie and Mrs. Baker have been able to take residence in the Catledge chateau because the mother, Grace (Jacki Weaver), is desperate to make contact with her departed husband. “Grace is naïve and very sweet-natured,” says Weaver. “She says, ‘There’s got to be something more than what we can actually see,’ and she really believes that. I think a lot of people think like that.” Grace’s desperation and eagerness makes her an easy target for Mrs. Baker, who is able to squeeze money out from her for a “foundation” she and Sophie want to start.

Says Marcia Gay Harden: “Sophie has the ability to charm the pants off people, but her mother isn’t as charming, she’s more shrewd. Because Sophie is such a gifted medium, that combination has taken them a long way.” Says Allen: “Mrs. Baker is a hustling stage mother. She’s got a meal ticket with the kid, pushes it, and together they manage to eke out a living. When she sees an opportunity to make some substantial money – she grabs it.”

In addition to her gifts as a medium, Sophie is also a dazzler with a magnetic personality, so it’s not surprising that Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), the amiable scion of the family, falls head over heels for her. “He’s willing to give her the world if she’ll take it,” says Linklater. “He’s not interested in her because she’s a psychic—although it is very nice in terms of how she makes his mother feel – he just loves her and wants to be with her.” Says Allen: “Brice isn’t a bad guy, he’s just not a very substantial person. But what he is offering her is a very tempting proposition, particularly back in the 20s, because it would make her and her mother wealthy for life.”

Also in the house are Brice’s sister, Caroline Catledge (Erica Leerhsen), and her psychiatrist husband, George (Jeremy Shamos). Suspicious about Sophie, they were the ones who initially summoned Howard to check her out. Says Allen: “I wanted to have someone there from the sciences because the scientific community is always befuddled by these kinds of people. You would think that they wouldn’t be, but in real life it’s quite the opposite. George has gone to medical school and studied psychiatry and doesn’t buy into it at first – but Sophie is so convincing that even he starts to believe.”

Eileen Atkins

iving near the Catledge estate is Stanley’s beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who provided a lot of his upbringing when he was a child and to whom he is closer than his own parents. Vanessa understands Stanley so well that she is the only one capable of guiding him, a difficult task with someone who thinks he knows everything. “Vanessa plays a very cool hand with him,” says Atkins. “She sees him as a little boy in the same way most parents go on seeing their children as children. So when she sees that things are going wrong with Stanley, she doesn’t overreact. She wins by saying the reverse thing because she knows that is how to get Stanley to do what she thinks is the right thing.” Says Firth: “Very tolerantly, very indulgently, Vanessa coaxes his true feelings out of him. She is not explicit about it, she just patiently allows him to go through his own thought process at his own pace and learn his own lessons.”

As Stanley becomes increasingly mystified by Sophie, he takes her to see Vanessa, who he knows has a keen eye for sizing people up. And it is in Vanessa’s home that Sophie performs what may be her most spectacularly unexplainable act of mind-reading. “I don’t think Vanessa is too bothered by how Sophie did it,” says Atkins. “She doesn’t think, ‘this girl has amazing abilities’ – she thinks ‘this girl has got to the heart of me very quickly,’ and right away, Vanessa is quite pleased to have that connection. And she thinks, there is a ‘maybe’ about everything; maybe the girl does have the power to see things. Vanessa is never going to say there absolutely are no miracles because there might be miracles.” Says Firth: “Vanessa is the wisest character in the story. She knows that real foolishness comes from being too certain of everything. Really wise people understand there is a lot we don’t know and that certainty is not equivalent to wisdom.”

Stanley, on the other hand, responds to Sophie’s feat at Vanessa’s by making a leap from utter skepticism into outright faith. “He doesn’t just fall into thinking that Sophie might be real,” says Firth. “Something that has been buried inside him for a long time suddenly explodes into a kind of childlike joy. ‘If she is real then I’ve been wrong about everything. And if I’ve been wrong about everything then it isn’t just the seeing world which exists and everything is possible. Maybe there is an afterlife and if there is an afterlife then maybe there is a God.’ Stanley has spent his life trying to approximate magic because he yearns for it. And I think because he has been disappointed by the lack of real magic in his life he has a hostility towards anybody who makes any claims for it.” Says Stone: “I love the way that Stanley, a man who is so successful at creating illusions for large groups of people to see, is transformed by Sophie, who makes him believe in a world that he can’t see.”

While Sophie rejuvenates Stanley emotionally, she is elevated intellectually by him. Says Allen: “Because he is well-read and demanding, Stanley exposes Sophie to things she might not otherwise have come in contact with. He opens those doors and awakens interests in her to pursue some of these things.” Says Stone: “Her tastes and her understanding of the world expands because she grew up in a very different world than the one Stanley comes from. She learns from him and that is very exciting for her.” Says Allen: “Sophie has the potential to be more cultivated than her circumstances have previously allowed her to be.”