Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review - Cassandra's Dream

Another year, another Woody Allen film, and another opportunity to see just how far from grace this once great director has fallen. Cassandra's Dream is the third consecutive film that Woody has shot in London, after the bafflingly acclaimed Match Point and the still-unreleased Scoop, and it's so painfully amateurish one wonders if Allen himself is even bothered about the standard of pictures he knocks out at such a consistent rate. As Cassandra's Dream shuffles apologetically into UK cinemas, its director is in Cannes promoting his latest effort, while the cameras have already started rolling on his next film, and every new release tarnishes his reputation a little more.
Cassandra's Dream is another stale reworking of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor starring as two brothers up to their necks in trouble. Ian (Ewan McGregor) feels trapped in his dad's restaurant and he has his eye on some ambitious investment deals, with his need for cash becoming more urgent when he falls for high-maintenance actress Angela (Hayley Atwell). His brother Terry (Farrell) is in a financial hole of his own making, with his gambling habit leaving him in debt to some dangerous people. With both brothers desperately looking for a way out, the appearance of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery as if his life depends on it) seems to be the answer to their prayers. He's a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the plastic surgery business, and he's happy to help his nephews, but only if they do him a favour in return. Howard is currently under some sort of investigation (the details are kept hazy), and he's particularly worried about a former colleague who's planning to testify against him, a situation that could be easily resolved if Ian and Terry agree to silence him permanently.

In the build up to this murder – which naturally doesn't run according to plan – Allen manages to generate a decent amount of tension, which piqued my interest a little, mainly because I was relieved to see something actually happening. The first hour is all talk, which isn't unusual for Allen, but as he seems to have no idea how people in this country speak, it does turn into something of a chore. "Isn't funny how life has a life of its own?" one character muses, while another suggests "Life is nothing if not totally ironic", and let's not forget "The whole of human life is about violence" – Allen's dialogue, which used to be so full of wit, has simply become a method for spelling out the themes of his pictures. He uses his references to Greek tragedies and classic literature in the same way, forcing his characters to discuss Euripides and Medea at one point, while Hayley Atwell's character actually says "The whole point of my character is to create erotic tension". Thanks for pointing that out, Woody.

There's little any actor could do with lines like that, but given the wide range of awful performances in Cassandra's Dream one wonders if Allen's actors were directed at all. McGregor underplays his part to the point of inertia, he barely seems to understand the shifts in his character and he certainly doesn't know how to transmit them to an audience, while Farrell fails in a different way. Frantic, edgy and occasionally incoherent, his acting starts to unravel rapidly as Terry begins to crack in the film's second half, and both actors fail to keep their accents within London's boundaries at crucial points, with Farrell's taking a tour of several countries.

But the actors can't be saddled with all of the blame. Surely a director of Allen's experience should have seen the disparity between the kinds of performances he was getting, or realised that some of his scenes were a few retakes away from finding the right tone, or even noticed the occasions when his actors appear to stumble over their lines. It's all put together with some remarkably shoddy editing, and the fact that Allen has signed this package off as being fit for release suggests a filmmaker bored by his own work; keen to get his job out of the way so he can move onto the next one, and the one after that. There's no joy in Allen's work, no sense of life, and this picture's crazily abrupt ending seems to neatly encapsulate the half-assed nature of the whole production. For years people wondered when Woody Allen would return to making films like "The early, funny ones", but right now most of us would just settle for something competent.