Match Point (2005): Woody Allen in Top Form, Thriller Starring Scarlett Johansson

Changing locales proves to be inspirational for Woody Allen. “Match Point,” his most accomplished film in a decade, represents a sharp departure for the native New Yorker auteur who has set his yarn in London, where it was also shot.

Allen is back in solid form with a film that deviates from his quintessentially New York comedies, marked by Jewish angst, sophisticated characters, and Upper East Side locales. These films, with their increasingly reliable ingredients, had become redundant and tiresome, even when they were cast with young actors since, for some reason, the latter chose to imitate the delivery style of their director-star.

Originally written as an Upper East Side drama, “Match Point” switched to London due to financing. Reportedly, the UK backers were willing to finance the film without looking at the script. Allen is notorious for his reluctance to show his screenplay to producers, and his actors get the script for a few hours.

Set entirely in London, and filled with British characters save for one American (Scarlett Johansson), “Match Point” represents a cross between Dostoevesky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Robert Altman’s class-conscious period mystery “Gosford Park,” and Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a highlight of his dramatic efforts. Additionally, several themes recall George Stevens’ “A Place of the Sun,” based on Theodor Dreiser’s novel, which was filmed twice; the first time as “American Tragedy,” directed by Josef von Sternberg.

One of Allen’s darker, less humorous works, “Match Point” is a morality tale about ambition, seduction, and sexual passion that unfolds as a noir thriller. The story dwells on the importance that luck plays in shaping events and characters, refuting the more comforting misconception that life is subject to a conscious or rational control.

Though set in different locale, it’s possible to recognize in “Match Point” several of Allen’s motifs, such as the neuroses of the characters, the highbrow banter, the allusions to Dostoevsky’s seminal novel, the references to Ingmar Bergman, the lack of discernible morality.

Allen is an auteur whose artistic vision could be defined in reference to that of other filmmakers. In the past, it was difficult for savvy viewers to take Allen’s creative borrowings on good faith, since he often alternated between movies that were inspired by Fellini (“Stardust Memories” is Allen’s “81/2”) and by Bergman (“Interiors”). “Crimes and Misdemeanors” contains a scene in which Allen restaged Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” nearly shot-for-shot.

In “Match Point,” Allen takes the time to establish his three central characters, their physical and social worlds, their tangled interactions, and their inner thoughts and decisions. The turns of the plot are meant to feel like the film’s title, which refers to a tennis match, with its back-and-forth movement reliance on skills but also luck. The twist ending highlights the film’s (a)morality, which may reflecting Allen’s personal view and/or the cynical times in which we live.

I saw the film at its first screening at Cannes, after which we American critics were happy that Allen had decided to alter his career path of the last decade and try something different. Though story takes place in contemporary England, it feels more like England of yesteryear, say 1930s or 1940s. British critics claimed in Cannes that “Match Point” is the work of an outsider, whose acquaintance of their country’s mores and class system derives from secondary information (movies and novels) rather than firsthand knowledge. Altman’s “Gosford Park” was not subjected to such criticism due to the fact that its Oscar-winning script was written by a Brit, Julian Felowes. This may or may not be a valid criticism, but it should not deter from acknowledging the film’s merits.

Allen’s tale centers on a poor Irish youngster, his upward mobility via marriage, and the beautiful American actress who comes between him and his wife. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys- Meyers), a former tennis pro, leaves the circuit after recognizing his limitations; he is simply not good enough. Chris gets a job as a tennis instructor at a fancy London club, where he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). The two men develop friendship, based on mutual interests, such as love of opera.

Tom invites Chris to join him in the family opera box where he meets Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), an agrreable womanwho’s immediately and unabashedly smitten with the handsome coach. Chris obliges and they begin dating, though he–and we–notice that something is missing from this courtship: Real passion.

Indeed, the difference between a gentle romance and passionate affair becomes clear upon meetings Tom’s fiancee, the moody, provocative, and sexy Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). When first ecnountered, playing ping-pong, Nola is dressed in a tight white outfit, generating the kind of eroticism that recalls the first sight of Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

Allen suggests that opportunities in life are a function of timing and context. Indeed, when Chris catches Nola in the right mood and moment, on the strett after yet another bad audition, she succumbs to his charm and they have a tryst. Tom eventually leaves Nola, who was never really accepted by his snobbish mom, and hooks with another woman. However, by then, Chris has married Chloe and has secured a lucrative job in the global financial firm of her father (Brian Cox).

The film’s mid-sections are a big of a drag. Chloe desperately wants to get pregnant, but it’s not in her cards; again fate plays a nasty trick and it’s Nola who gets pregnant. Fate also has Chris run into Nola a year later, this time in a gallery, which he attends with Choe and her friend. That random meeting resumes their affair, only this time there are more serious consequences.

Chris and Nola recognize in each other the working-class outsider in a world of class and wealth. However, if Chris is malleable enough to play the required rules of the game; Nola, a struggling actress, who is uncertain about her talents, is not. Even as he scales the corporate ladder, marries Chloe and endures her obsession with becoming pregnant, Chris pursues his attraction to Nola.

What’s a cad to do Chris is anxious to do “the right thing,” which might require surrendering his luxurious lifestyle. Facing the moral dilemma of a downward mobility or committing a crime that might rid him of the unpleasant aspects of his life, murder, Chris borrows the shotgun of his father-in-law and pursues a line of action that leads to some unexpected results.

As noted, the increasingly bitter tone and the serious issues of “Match Point,” how humans can rationalize any brutal and criminal act, the elusiveness of justice, which itself may be a matter of luck, echo “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Back in 1989, with this masterful inquiry into the nature of evil, Allen tackled morality and murder in a story about Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), an ophthalmologist esteemed by family and friends, but has a less admirable life. His mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is determined to reveal their affair to his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), threatening to expose his past embezzling. Judah decides he has no choice but to have her killed, and he does that with the help of his underworld-connected brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach).

Instead of taking a casually brutal approach, Allen dwells on the consequences of sin. But he doesn’t neglect humor, which resides in the relationships between a politically committed documentarian, Cliff Stern (played by Allen), his egotistical commercial TV director brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) and a TV producer (Mia Frarow), with whom Cliff falls in love. In the film’s final scene, Judah and Clif meet, both struggling with deas of right and wrong, morality and immorality, crimes and misdemeanors. “Match Point” deals with similar issues in a different locale, populated by younger characters.

In “Match Point,” Allen has etched two sharp charcaterizations, those of Chloe and Nola. He offers intriguing details about Chris’ ambition and determination to succeed at all costs (using legitimate and illegitimate means), including the radical act of a murder, and about Nola’s deteriorating conduct. However, most of the secondary roles, such as Chloe and the Hewetts’ parents, are too one-dimensional for a movie reaching for high philosophical notes.

Occasionally not only the characters, but the plot too suffer from shallowness and sketchiness as for example, the segments about Chris’ business world and and murder investigation. With a nod to Hitchcock, specifically “Frenzy,” the interaction between the two investigating cops tries to bering humor to a story that by then has become too dark for that.

The film opens with a shot of a tennis ball in mid-volley, poised above the net. The exact place where it will land, as the protagonist notes, is a matter of luck. Maintaining symmetry, a variation of that image appears at the end of the film in an exquisite touch that involves a ring. With its many plot twists, Allen uses subversive humor to heighten the central theme, the importance of fate and accidents.

As a youngster driven by ambition and easily seduced by the comforts of wealth, Rhys-Meyers renders an erotic, riveting performance that recalls the handsome and appealing villains in Hitchcok’s work, such as James Mason in “North by Northwest.” Playing a variation of roles she has done before, Johansson is equally good in a part that calls for sexual allure and emotional vulnerability in equal measure. If Johansson becomes a shrill in the later segments, it’s a fault of the writing.

Surrounding himself with a new set of craftsmen, production designer Jim Clay, cinematographer Remi Adefarasins, costume designer Jill Taylor, and editor Alisa Lepselter, Allen has made a film that doesn’t look or sound like any of his previous outings. Unlike Allen’s former movies, in which classic pop (Gershwin, Porter) dominated, in “Match Point,” opera appropriately provides the music on the soundtrack, though it’s so insistently used that it becomes a distraction, often caling attention to itself.