Match Point

on December 28, 2005 by Sheri Linden
The change of scenery proves invigorating for Woody Allen in "Match Point," his first U.K. production. Allen didn't write the film with London in mind, and the class-conscious tale of passion and ambition could have unfolded anywhere. But leaving behind his deep attachment to New York liberates him to focus on character with unexpected vitality. Where "Melinda and Melinda" marked a return to confident filmmaking after several years of less-than-memorable work, "Match Point" achieves a timeless dramatic power.

The film opens with the image of a tennis ball in mid-volley, poised above the net; where it will fall, the protagonist notes, is a matter of luck. A variation on that image will appear toward the end of the film, in an exquisite twist that caps one of Allen's best screenplays. His fine cast rises to the occasion, beginning with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as former tennis pro Chris Wilton. Realizing that he'll never break out of the pack as a true star, the Irish lad, who has a taste for Dostoyevsky, takes a job as an instructor at a posh London country club. He befriends a client, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), and begins dating Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer) -- but not before an intense exchange of double entendres and smoldering looks with Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), the luscious blonde who happens to be Tom's fiancée.

Chris and Nola recognize in each other the working-class outsider in a world of palatial estates. But Chris is malleable enough to play the required role; Nola, a struggling actress, isn't. Chloe's father (Brian Cox) offers Chris a lucrative job, while Mrs. Hewett (Penelope Wilton) does everything she can to discourage Tom's relationship with Nola. Even as he scales the corporate ladder, marries Chloe and endures her obsession with becoming pregnant, Chris pursues his star-crossed attraction to Nola.

In the film's dark undercurrent -- the rationalization of ruthless deeds, the elusiveness of justice -- there are glimmers of "Crimes and Misdemeanors." But with the aforementioned plot twist, Allen brilliantly uses subversive humor to heighten the impact of those themes and bring home the importance of dumb luck. As a man stifled and seduced by the comforts of wealth, Rhys-Meyers is riveting; Johansson commands the screen with a compelling mix of street smarts, sexiness and vulnerability. Remi Adefarasin's camerawork makes London a dynamic but never intrusive presence, with Verdi selections complementing the story's operatic arc. Starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton. Directed and written by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley and Lucy Darwin. A DreamWorks release. Drama. Rated R for some sexuality. Running time: 124 min

Tags: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton, Woody Allen, Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley, Lucy Darwin, DreamWorks, Drama, humor, love, passion, relationships

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