Woody Allen's prolonged exile in England continues to pay off for him in his newest picture, Cassandra's Dream. A morality play along the lines of Crimes and Misdemeanors and another of his British dramas, Match Point, it proves the seventy-three-year-old director still has the goods when it comes to tackling the big questions and the evil that men do.
Set in contemporary London, Cassandra's Dream is the story of two brothers who, in their terms, are tired of being low-stakes players and want to make something more of their lives. They've seen their father (John Benfield) break his back running a restaurant since they were kids, and he has little to show for it. As their mother (Clare Higgins) tells us, just in case we can't figure it out for ourselves, her boys are two vastly different people. Ian (Ewan McGregor) is the smooth-talking brains of the operation, while Terry (Colin Farrell) is more rough-and-tumble. He works as an auto mechanic, frittering away most of his earnings on booze, pills, and gambling. Except when he wins, like the glorious streak of luck he is enjoying at the start of the picture. With his 60-to-1 reward from the dog track, the siblings buy their own boat and name it for the dog that earned them the cash: Cassandra's Dream.
Lucky streaks usually break, however, and before he knows it Terry is in the hole big-time, making it impossible to buy the house he and his fiancée (Sally Hawkins) have their eye on. Ian needs just as much cash to enter into his latest business venture and get out of daddy's restaurant. When he does, he can secure his relationship with the beautiful actress Angela (Hayley Atwell). Where can the boys raise that kind of dough?
Cue the entrance of rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). Howard has always been willing to help out family in a pinch, and he's willing to do so again; however, this time, there is a catch. One of Howard's colleagues (Phil Davis) is about to rat him out for some underhanded business dealings, and it will render moot any of Howard's intentions to help his nephews. The informer can't be persuaded or bought, so he needs to be negotiated with in a more permanent manner.
To kill or not to kill becomes the great dilemma that drives the rest of Cassandra's Dream. Both boys refuse at first, but eventually Ian comes around and starts to persuade Terry. The rough gambler ends up being the weaker-willed of the two, with Ian's calculating business mind working out the ways the ends can justify the means. At one point, Terry says he fears that once they cross the line into murder, they can never go back, and this is the kind of prophesy that drives many a tragedy. The build-up to the actual deed is fraught with complication, doubt, and calamity. Woody Allen layers the tension on, one stroke at a time. By the time the brothers take action, I thought I was going to develop an ulcer.
From there, though, Allen doesn't let up. All decisions come with consequences, and by going ahead with Uncle Howard's request, Ian and Terry do cross that line, giving themselves over to the inevitability of fate. Each resulting reaction compounds on them both, victims of their own great folly just like so many of the heroes of the Greek tragedies Woody Allen regularly references. In the filmmaker's world, just because you get away with something, it doesn't mean you really get away with it.
The plotting of Cassandra's Dream is extremely efficient. I was amazed by how quickly the writer/director moved through the first act, establishing the good life the boys are living and then unraveling it. For the first ten or twenty minutes, Allen doesn't tip his hand at all. He presents us with good sons who we would never imagine doing anything wrong. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell work well together as brothers, bringing a combination of love and rivalry that suggests a deep union. Both also prove extremely proficient at handling the chunks of dialogue the director gives them. They have the mannerisms of stage actors, appearing simultaneously natural and rehearsed. Thus, when Wilkinson comes in, more frenzied, often flubbing his dialogue and having to insert restarts and repeats, it's all the more shattering. This is temptation: energetic, alluring, disrupting the status quo.
If there is anything detracting from the success of Cassandra's Dream, it is a lingering sense of deja vu. We really have seen Woody Allen do this kind of thing before in both of the films I mentioned at the outset. Those movies are superior to this one, both in terms of freshness and the overall feeling that they inspire. The questions of right and wrong, black and white, carry a heavier weight that is lacking here. Instead of pondering the choices the guys were making, I was more caught up in the puzzle of it, what would happen next and how would the problem get solved. It's not a bad way to get caught up in a film, but since this is Woody Allen, it doesn't seem unfair to expect a little more.
Excepting that, Cassandra's Dream is still a gripping, smartly done motion picture. Everyone involved has brought their A-game. More's the pity that the final result is more like a B+ or an A-.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.