Magic in the Moonlight

September 20, 2014

Woody Allen is a bit like the Arsenal of movie making. He laces up each season, diligently delivering a new picture to compete with contenders old and new. But the strength of his attempts fluctuates year on year and rarely does he take the title of our heart back to back. Coming off the success of Blue Jasmine, his most recent film to be named ‘his greatest picture since Annie Hall’, hopes weren’t high for Magic in the Moonlight, a period romp set in the South of France where Colin Firth’s magician is enlisted to debunk Emma Stone’s medium before she makes off with the heart- and inheritance of a millionaire dullard.

Not one of his classic works this is still a gorgeous slice of nostalgia, that dishes on the divisions between rationalists and spiritualists between the wars, while also pondering the hope and joy that lies in the unknown, making a succinct parallel between what we know-or don’t, about the universe and love.

Firth is on typical form, playing Stanley, a miserable misanthrope who takes no pleasure from childish delusions, no matter how comforting they may be. He shows snooty disdain for all who believe in an afterlife, a god, spirits or even the soul. A pompous popinjay, set in his ways, he exasperates excruciatingly as Stone’s sorcery confounds him.

Allen, creator of some of the greatest female characters ever to appear on the silver screen, has long had trouble filling the Woody-like hole at the heart of his pictures, and he has one of his worst, misfiring leads here, in a performer who can’t see beyond the outline of a character to give it colour.

True, the writer-director’s ear is not as finely attuned to the parlance of the hoighty-toighty British elite. But there was plenty for Firth to work with. Stanley’s world-view has been shaken. His struggle to let go of his crippling negativity should provide a range of emotions for an actor to create a transformation an audience can feel themselves without it being overly illustrated through tone and emphasis.

But Firth plays him like a petulant bi-polar who surges from one energy to another without a second thought. It’s unlikely he brought anything to Stanley that wasn’t explicitly written by Allen, and the bluntness with which he performs it is unimaginative, unlikeable and unfortunate given what surrounds him.

Pretty much everything else about the picture is a delight. Allen’s script falls somewhere between the whimsy of Midnight in Paris and his more emotive dramas Match Point or September. It’s not a sharp-shooting comedy but a light, yellowing romance with big issues at its core.

You just wish he explored the sadness and melancholy of the supporting characters more, instead of rethreading the storybook romance.

But his one flick a year rate means he relies on the genius of his better actors to do this for him, with Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Hamish Linklater all nailing it in underwritten roles. Dame Eileen Atkins steals the show as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa, with a turn that aches with the wear of a lived life, while Stone fills the muse’s shoes, A fine line previously worn by Dianne Wiest, Dianne Keaton and Judy Davis, she breaks them in with warm, witty grace that, like all great Woody heroines, is intriguingly individual yet faultlessly familiar.

With costumes from Sonia Grande- that will illicit ungodly pleasure for fashion fetishists, and Darius Khondji’s radiant cinematography capturing the splendour of the French coast, this is a swoony, Sunday-afternoon of a flick, which, though not perfectly constructed, appeals to both heart and mind.


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