sun 22/09/2019

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger | reviews, news & interviews

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Maybe it's because he's not a Londoner, Woody Allen's latest doesn't quite hit home

Deluding themselves: Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts in 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'Sony Pictures Classics

As he did with his Spanish idyll Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen supplies his fourth London film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with an anonymous male American narrator whose air of irritatingly breezy omniscience distances us from the proceedings, limiting the empathy we may feel for the four protagonists. This is a shame, because two of them - tetchy, unhappily married Sally (Naomi Watts) and her divorced, needy mother Helena (Gemma Jones) - are, for all their faults, characters we hope to see prosper.

As he did with his Spanish idyll Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen supplies his fourth London film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with an anonymous male American narrator whose air of irritatingly breezy omniscience distances us from the proceedings, limiting the empathy we may feel for the four protagonists. This is a shame, because two of them - tetchy, unhappily married Sally (Naomi Watts) and her divorced, needy mother Helena (Gemma Jones) - are, for all their faults, characters we hope to see prosper.

Their husbands invite sterner judgement. A semi-retired, late-menopausal moneybags, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has dumped Helena after 40 years of marriage to take up with a gold-digging prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch in a role originally intended for Nicole Kidman), who’s more than half his age. Sally’s feckless American husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a failed novelist, meanwhile goes after a younger neighbouring beauty played by Freida Pinto (pictured below with Brolin) and contrives an outrageous plan - exactly like Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar - to land a literary smash.

The subject of Allen’s disquieting movie, which is tonally even and devoid of one-liners, is people’s willingness to invest in illusions, the more absurd-seeming of them not necessarily as endangering as emotional speculations that appear to be based in reality. That narrator starts by quoting Shakespeare’s line about life being a tale “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”, but “Lord what fools these mortals be” would have been more appropriate. In faintly comic scenes that are matched by Alfie’s naïve dealings with Charmaine, Helena falls hook, line and sinker for the blandishments and predictions of an opportunistic fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), and the earnestness of an occult bookshop owner (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who’s trying to contact his dead wife. Helena is sneered at by Roy and patronised by Sally, but Allen allows her faith to deliver her from the grief she’s saddled with at the start of the film. It’s not the mumbo-jumbo that sustains her, however, as much as her survivalist streak, which emerges when Alfie takes her to an old haunt near the end.

Sally dreams of a romance with her sensitive boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), and has every reason to believe he reciprocates her growing feelings - he likes her and the chocolate truffles she brings to work. In the film’s most magical scenes, he has Sally try on pearl earrings intended for his wife, takes her to the opera, and gives her a lift home. Sally is as sparkly as her surroundings in the jeweller’s shop and hesitates sublimely as she waits for a kiss in the car, but Greg gives nothing away. The camera later closes in on Sally as, having experienced a revelation, she sits with her head at an angle seeing nothing but her own distracted thoughts. Who is more honest with herself, mother or daughter? In their final scene together, we see a side of Sally for which Allen had slowly prepared us, but which still comes as a shock.

There’s a calculated glibness to Allen’s recent work that looks like laziness when the writing, direction and performances lack energy and conviction (ScoopCassandra’s Dream) and insouciance when they are sharp and knowing (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). If anything, this facile quality deepens the impact made by tiny bombshells, as when, in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Helena reveals that she couldn’t conceive a child after the death of her and Alfie’s first child, a son. That tragedy has left Alfie craving a second son, the real reason, rather than sex or ageing, that has thrust him into the arms of the fecund but otherwise unsuitable Charmaine, who, to put it politely, is more WAG than Alfie material. (She can’t understand why Ibsen’s Ghosts isn’t scary, which aligns her with Lysette Anthony’s dim aerobics instructor in Husbands and Wives as much as it does the cartoonish hookers in Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry - there are brainy women and "stunnahs" in Allen’s work, but never the twain shall meet.) Similarly, Sally is unfulfilled because she is childless, and frustrated because Roy is too indulgent to take a day job to provide for an expanded family and insists on their using contraception.

Only one of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’s main characters looks like he or she will find happiness, though it ends far less bleakly or bitterly than, say, the Dostoevskian duo, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. Unsurprisingly, Allen can’t resist putting in a word for the titular gentleman - not the handsome beau conjured by the likes of Cristal, but the one whom, as Roy says, we will all meet eventually and who might visit Alfie soon enough if Charmaine hoists a second alimony on him. In Woody Allen’s cinema, love and death are what life’s all about. And, more often than his critics admit, there remains “good sport in its making".

Watch the trailer for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

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