The Reeler


January 17, 2008

Cassandra's Dream

Farrell's performance the highlight of Allen's uneven blend of high drama and afternoon telly

Woody Allen's latest adventure in foreign filmmaking, after the success of Match Point and the innocuous lark that was Scoop, seems initially to be more of an adventure in afternoon telly. His third straight film set in England, Cassandra's Dream begins with a series of drab domestic set pieces featuring dialogue so ringy-dingy forced and a rhythm so stiff and stagy I thought maybe Allen had been fed a steady diet of Coronation Street with his bubble and squeak. Even to English audiences I suspect the charm, or the novelty, or the whatever he was going for with his chummy, canned familial set-up, will fall flat; casting fair Scot Ewan McGregor and swarthy Irishman Colin Farrell as Londontown brothers doesn't exactly bode for verisimilitude, but there is a tension at play between the narrative's mundane trappings and melodramatic aspirations that proves more distracting than successful, as it was in last year's Sidney Lumet film, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.

Lumet's crash course in greed, murder and brothers in arms is similarly plotted: Ewan McGregor plays Ian Benfield, the aspiring mogul and older brother to Terry (Farrell), the family pet and cheerful mechanic with a shadowy gambling habit; the film opens with the two boys and their lady friends on Cassandra's Dream, a small yacht Terry purchased and named after the dog who brought him a windfall at the races. Both of the Benfield boys are dreamers, and speak in a stilted, 1930s everyman oater dialect about their desire to strike out for a better life. Raised humbly by their restaurant-owning parents in a working class community, they also suffer from what seems like a peculiarly modern affliction: an overflow of ambition without the drive -- much less the talent -- to back it up.

Ian, in particular, feels hard done by in life, and in him Allen comes closest to the Jonathan Rhys-Meyers character in Match Point, along with the double-stick issue of class and climbing in British society. Ian is always on about the big doings in the works, using the vague, Willy Loman-isms of a businessman without a business, pumping up his plans and investment opportunities with a darting, sweaty insistence that betrays his desperation. It pained me to see McGregor so miscast; I hadn't really thought it possible, but he seems to struggle not only with the airless dialogue but the dull yet calculated, essential hollowness at Ian's nice-guy core. (I kept seeing Martin Freeman in the role.)

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Farrell, by contrast, works miracles with the emotional, garrulous, tragic Terry: hoisting those church-steeple eyebrows like hands in prayer, and to pathetic effect, Terry's dreams, while more realistic, are equally out of reach. He is literally covered in the grime of the world, the grease from his dayjob in the garage permanently wedged under his nails, and his ambitions seem to be more a reflection of his brother's than a result of discontent with what is essentially a happy life shared with his fiancée Kate (Sally Hawkins).

Mis-opportunity knocks in the form of Howard (Tom Wilkinson), Ian and Terry's mysteriously rich uncle and ersatz family patriarch. Both of the boys hit their uncle up for money -- a lot of money -- and Howard counters with a deal: off one of his business enemies, who has been poking into Howard's ill-gotten gains, and he'll give them what they need. Ian, having fallen madly (and incredulously) in love with a swishy actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell), needs the money to make the Big Deal and sweep his fickle mistress off to Los Angeles; Terry, in a gambling pickle of shin-splinting proportions, needs to pay off his debt and have enough leftover for the house he promised Kate. After initially turning the offer down in dismay, the brothers come around, and the events that follow veer from slapstick to suspense to hubris and high drama and back to the melodrama of the start. The perfect murder, of course, is anything but.

The ideas at play here are less interesting and less developed than those of a film like Match Point, whose distinctly earthbound, morally disordered and completely random universe had no room for anything as hackneyed and high-flown as hubris or karmic retribution. What holds the shaky girders of this film -- which itself seems to reach beyond its means -- together is the development of the rift between Ian and Terry, largely driven by Farrell's increasingly tormented performance. Despite many sour notes (the transaction-based relationship between Ian and Angela feels even more false than it is, the knotty class issues are left skirted and unsatisfied and Philip Glass's score is often overbearing and incongruous), the dilemma of the brothers gains an involving, train-wreck traction, and the question of their fate, for those with even the most fleeting knowledge of Oedipus, Krishna or Hitchcock (but oddly, not late Woody Allen), is no question at all.

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