By Paul-John Ramos
Highly appropriate for a film with blind luck as its theme, Match Point was when the proverbial stars aligned for Woody Allen after a string of projects that failed to earn at the box office and were often critically derided. Allen’s intimate social drama, first seen out of competition at Cannes, was originally to take place in the Hamptons, a waterfront bastion of the New York elite. Having a reputation for costing producers money on films that were well-made but not commercially viable, Allen could not secure financing for Match Point in the U.S. and looked overseas. BBC Films finally gave him the needed budget, under its quasi-governmental condition that the picture was to be made in England with a majority of roles and crew positions filled by British nationals or residents. Match Point‘s story was moved from New York to primarily London and the cast was filled by talented actors like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton, and…Scarlett Johansson, whose last-minute replacement of Kate Winslet did not matter to the BBC quota.
In a 2006 interview for The Age, Allen spoke of Match Point as “arguably the best film [he’d] made” up till then. Besides drawing praise from critics, it grossed $85.6 million worldwide and was his first film since Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986 to turn any kind of profit at U.S. box offices. The award committees also took notice with nominations for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Johansson’s performance at the Golden Globes. Allen seemed to revive his directing career and, after this BBC production’s success, became something of an anglophile: Match Point was followed by the English settings of Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Although – in this writer’s opinion – the final half-hour is a botched attempt at fate and coincidence that turns into an annoying tragicomedy of errors, Match Point certainly deserves all of the credit for its direction and performances. The film’s acting ranges from very good to excellent, with an entire cast looking assured in their roles and contributing to the larger picture. Allen’s screenplay and direction, owing largely to his stage experience, are tightly wound, with every line of dialogue or action moving the storyline forward; there is not a shred of excess or any of the frivolousness that is seen in Allen’s lighter films. Match Point is a slow-burning character study in its execution, with matters developing gradually over the first hour before things gain momentum and lead to a climax with unexpectantly tragic results.
Match Point‘s brutal outcome is at the hands of Chris Wilton (Rhys Meyers), a former tennis pro who left the world tour after growing sick of constant travel and his unchanging status as an also-ran to the game’s higher seeds. Still of a young age and looking for a sense of direction, he takes up employment at an exclusive London sports club, where he becomes friends with Tom Hewett (Goode), a corporate executive’s son who has similar tastes in art and music. Chris is introduced to Tom’s father Alec (Cox), mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton, not to be confused with Chris Wilton), and sister Chloe (Mortimer), with whom he begins a relationship. Mr. and Mrs. Hewett like Chris from the start and are exceedingly generous, allowing him free roam of their manor while giving him a fast-track position in Alec’s company. Chris and Chloe – the former having every materialistic reason, besides romantic ones – get married and settle into a posh apartment overlooking the Thames.
Unfortunately, Chris is distracted by Nola Rice (Johansson), a struggling American actress who is engaged to Tom and disapproved of by her future mother-in-law. Nola is everything that Chloe is not: while Chloe is physically slight, mild-mannered, tidy, and doting, Nola is voluptuous, frank, potentially chaotic, and insecure. The exile of a broken family in Colorado, she hobbles from one failed audition to another and consoles herself with drink, cigarettes, and flexing her sexual prowess. Chris, who meets her before going deeper into the relationship with Chloe, is immediately attracted and an affair eventually takes shape while he’s married. Nola serves as an erotic foil and source of comfort after Chloe becomes overwhelmed by her inability to conceive a child. The married couple’s sex life declines into a robotic list of steps from fertility doctors.
It becomes clear from his earliest days with Nola and the Hewetts that Chris is not a likeable man. Perhaps owing much to his time as an athlete, he is shifty, arrogant, and drawn to potentially open doors like a shark smelling blood. Chris walks around with the veneer of an aesthete, indulging in nineteenth century literature, opera, and modern art exhibits at London galleries, but he can more appropriately be called a hedonist, loving anything that suggests status like expensive cars, high-ceilinged living rooms, and a weekend hunt for grouse. While his marriage to Chloe is fairly peaceful – so long as Mrs. Hewett keeps her opinions and prodding out of it – the union is as much a pathway to social advancement as a loving bond. And while Chris is torn between his two women, he still has his cake and eats it; he regularly sleeps with Nola behind Chloe’s back, trying to conceal everything for the sake of his newly found luxury.
All of this takes a turn for the worst when Nola becomes pregnant. Having been the subject of two prior abortions, Nola wants to have their baby and orders him to break up with Chloe. Chris, now in a corner, ponders ways of securing his marriage (and upper-class lifestyle) while keeping Nola at bay. It becomes a decision of extreme measures, which takes up the final half-hour in Match Point‘s 124-minute running time, formerly the longest of any Allen-directed picture. In watching the tragic happenings unfold, questions are asked about human freedom and whether or not we are only puppets for the random winds of the world.
Though Chris Wilton is unlikeable, his story is strangely compelling and gives us food for thought about the need to make a decision when every available option will have its consequences. Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives a strong depiction of Chris’s turmoil and would be called ‘superb’ if his character wasn’t so damn infuriating. Emily Mortimer is charming as Chloe, though she tends to be one-note as a refined Englishwoman who needs to mind her aitches. Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, is given far more dramatic range and becomes the real standout as Nola. She is completely convincing as a sexpot who teeters from alluringness to uncertainty to stubbornness to full-out rage. It was a genuine stroke of luck (there’s that word again) when Johansson replaced Kate Winslet just a week before production began and gave the film her uniquely American presence. It’s also quite funny to see her portraying an actress who can’t get anything right and has to work in a boutique store for income.
Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton ably fill their roles as the elder Hewetts and make an interesting contrast. While Alec Hewett is a laid-back businessman who stays out of other’s hair and quietly patronizes the arts, his wife Eleanor is openly critical of Nola’s failed acting career and pines for her grandchild from Chloe, despite the fact that she has received one from Tom’s eventual wife Heather (Miranda Raison). Matthew Goode is pleasant as Tom, who gets this story underway by introducing Chris to the Hewett clan. The London Metropolitan Police become involved in Match Point‘s finale, with two officers steadily portrayed by Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting, Snatch) and James Nesbitt (TV’s Bloody Sunday, Cold Feet). BAFTA, Olivier, and Tony Award winner Margaret Tyzack plays Mrs. Eastby, a neighbor of Nola who is blindsided in Chris’s plan to ‘fix’ things.
To enhance the film’s opera subtext, Allen uses a soundtrack entirely of arias and duets, including pre-World War I recordings by Caruso. The sound clips, which feature that hiss and crackle of Caruso’s 78 RPM discs, give an ironic yet oddly calm background to what transpires. Excellent filming locations were chosen in London (including West Kensington, Covent Garden, Notting Hill, and Lambeth) and Reading, where the Hewetts’ estate is located (actually Englefield House in Theale). The English urban and rural atmospheres were well-utilized and Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography is strong in bringing out a gray London afternoon or the color of an old manor home and its gardens.
While Match Point is a film of irony, it isn’t in a typical mode for Allen and could have been made by any other established director of thrillers. This, however, does not take away from his solid direction and the change of pace could actually make it a very entertaining film for those who don’t usually like his work. The film’s last scenes, it must be said, are not very convincing – there is police business that involves ridiculously high-chance occurrences and these coppers look the most unmotivated in world history. Anything, I guess, to prove a point. There is an existential question that Allen’s story asks – and a certainly legitimate one – but it’s not entirely clear to me if it was intended as a question or if Allen was too clumsy in supplying an answer. If one can get around this issue (and recent controversy over the director’s private life, which is for another forum), Match Point is well worth one’s time in following the key players and their lives’ twists and turns.
One final note: numerous U.K. critics deducted points from Match Point for what they felt was Allen’s lack of understanding in how British people speak. As a New Yorker, I noticed one or two expressions that were typically American and may have gotten through Allen’s ‘filter’ when he changed the setting from Long Island to England. I have not lived in England, but I’m familiar with their culture and can’t say that I found the dialogue jarring in comparison to other English-set films that I’ve seen (though it’s obviously a different experience for people from there). Alec, at least, isn’t made to say “Neato,” so, there’s at least that.