The latest Woody Allen film finally reached Dundee last week. In a surprising change Allen has left his home turf of New York to locate the film in London. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has all the strengths and weakness of recent Allen films. The strengths are the usual - an ensemble piece with a good cast, great filming, great music and great directing. The cast is an interesting mix of internationally famous stars and British stalwarts. From around the globe come Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. The local cast includes well kent faces such as Gemma Jones, Pauline Collins, Lucy Punch and Phillip Glenister. They all work well together and as ever Allen leads us in and out of the different strands of his tale with effortless ease. As usual with Allen the cinematography is wonderful, with some lovely and unusual views of London streets. It is also a very pleasing film to watch, with some beautiful and carefully crafted interiors and a fine swathe of (mostly) classic fashion on display. Another plus is that Allen continues to resist the current fad to produce ever longer films and sticks to the traditional hour and a half or so. This helps to keep the pace of the action tight and sharp.
Alas the usual weaknesses are there, and this time in super abundance. The main disappointment with the film is the story itself. Now all Allen films deal to some extent with a few key recurring issues. One is how relationships succeed or more often fail. Another is how to find happiness in the world here and now. This theme nearly always involves an older man seeking solace in the arms of a younger woman (usually much younger woman). There is a pervading nihilistic feel to all Allen films in that they are all premised on the view that life basically sucks and is meaningless. Nevertheless his best films always manage to say something positive about the struggle for meaning and offer some kind of hope for the future, however fragile that might be.
With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger this is not the case. All the main characters make disastrous choices at key moments and for all but two it looks like they will live to regret it. And for good measure just about all the main characters are pretty mean, if not downright nasty people. The plot revolves around two failing marriages. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) leaves his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) for a young ditzy blonde prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), whom he promptly marries. Helena finds solace in friendship with a charlatan fortune teller (Pauline Collins). Meanwhile Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is struggling with both her career in the art world and with her marriage to failed writer Roy (Josh Brolin). Sally tries and fails to start an affair with her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), while Roy does succeed in starting an affair with the young and beautiful violinist Dia (Freida Pinto), who just happens to live opposite him.
Things then very quickly turn really bad for everyone, with little prospect of a happy ending in sight. That is for all except Helena. And in many ways this is what makes the film such a depressing statement. For Helena is not only a thoroughly nasty person, who seems to have no real feelings for her daughter, but she is also clearly mad. Under the baleful influence of her charlatan friend, she quickly loses any sense of rationality that she possessed and becomes more and more loopy and hurtful to her daughter. After discovering the virtues of a belief in re-incarnation she finds happiness with another deeply disturbed and loopy soulmate.
It is interesting to compare this ending with Allen’s previous film, Whatever Works. That too was about the struggle to find happiness and meaning in life. The message of that film was that anyone and everyone could find some kind of happiness, if not meaning in life. You just had to work out what worked for you. In his latest film though the only people who seem to have found any kind of happiness are mad and nasty too. Not only is there no meaning to life, there is no point in even looking for happiness. Life is just so haphazard and without reason that you are only likely to find comfort if you are a touch mad.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger also falls down in comparison with Whatever Works in terms of the writing. Whatever Works was very funny with some great lines. The current film has no such redeeming features. The dialogue is lacking in the wit and sharpness that have been Allen’s hallmark. It is just not that funny a film to overcome the remorseless bitterness and bleakness of the story.