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Match Point (10/10)

by Tony Medley

“Match Point” has none of the failings of lots of films, like plot holes and inane, “slice of life” dialogue. In fact, when former tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has his first “date” with Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the dialogue is so realistic I felt as if I were eavesdropping on two real people. There’s no cutesy repartee that sounds as if it came directly from the Algonquin Round Table and that nobody outside of Dorothy Parker could come up with off the cuff. It is just two real people having a real conversation, one that two people who are just getting to know one another would really have. There’s no getting around it, Allen has written a brilliant script. He has an ear for good dialogue, people saying things that real people would really say. (OK, there are a lot of “reals” in there, but this is a movie that is, well, real!).

Chris has been befriended by Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a wealthy Englishman and heir to a huge fortune. Tom introduces him to his family where Chris meets Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who falls for Chris. Unfortunately, Chris falls for Nola, who happens to be Tom’s fiancée.

Things get more involved and difficult from there and I don’t intend to tell the plot. But, despite what happens, it is such a realistic plot told in realistic terms that this is the way life really is. Tom and Chloe’s family are enormously wealthy. People like that do exist, and Allen has chosen to tell a story about them. What’s wrong with that? Even so, Chris’s character, a low born Irishman, is so well drawn that the way he is drawn in to the family is the way it could happen.

As far as I’m concerned, this is writer-director Woody Allen’s best movie, by far. Although it defies Allen’s dictum that no movie should be longer than 90 minutes (this one came in at around 2 hours), at no time does it drag, even though it is all talk. Rhys Meyers gives an exceptional performance capturing the poor Irish tennis pro who gets lucky and takes advantage of it.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Johansson has made her short career out of characters who don’t show much emotion (2003’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and “Lost in Translation”). Subsequent efforts, like “The Island” and “In Good Company” were roles virtually any actress could have handled because they didn’t require much. In this she really has to show a range, and she handles it with aplomb. Consistent with what I’ve said before, her initial reaction to Chris is realistic, and later in the film, how she reacts is equally realistic.

I first saw Goode in his film debut and only other appearance to date, “Chasing Liberty” (2004). If you blinked, you missed it, but it was a delightful comedy. Goode was terrific as Mandy Moore’s love interest. He is equally good here, as is Mortimer, who, as Chloe, is sweet and hopelessly in love with Chris. As is usual with Allen, he told the cast to improvise and Goode took him at his word. According to Allen, he “created this aristocratic young man in a way I never could.”

Allen has such supreme confidence in himself that he gives his actors enormous leeway. Emily Mortimer confirms, “The one thing he told us was to feel free to change the dialogue to fit how the English would say things. He told us just to make it natural.”

Another good thing about the film is that the tennis action, and there’s not much because this is not a film about tennis, does not show actors who are trying desperately to be athletic but who look pathetic. Even though Rhys Myers is not a tennis player, he looks like he knows what he’s doing and the tennis shots show the ball actually going where it would go in a real rally. That’s what an actor is supposed to do; make us believe he is something or someone he is not. So often in tennis pictures people are shown swinging rackets like they’ve never seen one before. Astute observers can actually see the ball going off into the nether instead of where it should go. In “Wimbledon” (2004) the ball was inserted by CGI in post production so that this didn’t happen. Here the actors are actually hitting a real ball with good tennis strokes and the ball is actually going where it should go.

The film, which was shot on location in London, has some spectacular sets. I saw this at a Screen Actors Guild screening and when the apartment Chloe’s father, Alec (Brian Cox, who gives a very good performance as a captain of industry who is also a caring father) gives her is shown, it got a big laugh. There is a view of the Thames and one of its bridges to die for.

Throughout, Chris, although a good looking guy who appears to be nice with good manners, has a tinge of deceit and danger about him. Allen lets us draw our own conclusions, but he leads us nicely into the web into which the film descends.

The sound track is unique. Instead of jazz or popular music, Allen has opted for an operatic score, almost all of it sung by the legendary Enrico Caruso. Allen says there’s a thematic reason for this, “The story is operatic; it deals with the kinds of things opera is so often about: love and lust, passion and jealousy, betrayal and tragedy…and, of course, the confluence of fate and luck.”

December 7, 2005