After years of slowly dying on the vine under the beating glare of annoyed film critics and frustrated fans, Woody Allen has finally redeemed himself with Match Point, which is charming, intriguing, spell-binding. For the first time, there is no Woody Allen stand-in character. More amazingly, the film is set in London rather than New York. And it is instructive to see which parts of London culture and British society Allen enlists to tell this sometimes Hollywood noir thriller, sometimes Dostoevskian philosophical tale. Scarcely a scene takes place without Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who plays the Irish social climber landed among London’s highest and finest.
Match Point is a tale well told, all else is subservient to this. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a professional tennis player, turned instructor. He has gotten himself hired at one of London’s most exclusive clubs, evidently to mine its membership for some golden opportunities. Wilton is an agile artiste of a social climber and knows how to play his luck. His very first tennis student, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), takes a liking to the smooth-talking Irishman, inviting him into his home and his family’s inner circle, which includes money, professional connections and a marriageable sister, Chloe(Emily Mortimer).
For the poor, life is tragic, but for the wealthy, as Tom, Chloe and their parents Alec (Brian Cox) and Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) demonstrate, life is something to embrace with love, a white thing with feathers. Indeed, they are all so untroubled because wealth always buffers their sort from any real consequences. The Hewetts seem not so much easy prey to Wilton’s designs, but willing to go along for the ride—Wilton is a likable sort, and brings a bit of spice into their genteel routine.
Chris, however, is very hungry. Even as he continues to insinuate himself into the Hewett family and becomes engaged to Chloe, he is incapable of resisting his appetite for another poor social-climber, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a Colorado-born, neurotic aspiring actress—and Tom’s fiancee. Nola is far more desperate and clawing, far more vulnerable, and with far fewer natural gifts to protect her she is far more naked in her need than Chris. And Chris, of course, can’t resist pushing his luck to see how far it will take him. While American audiences may see in Nola a parody of a modern designing woman, she is pure Zola, a victim of things much bigger than the thwarted ambition of a mediocre talent.
Match Point feels very much like a Bergman film, its narrative inventiveness and fairy-tale qualities evoke Fanny and Alexander in particular. (Match Point stands apart from Allen’s oeuvre much as Fanny and Alexander does from Bergman’s oeuvre.) Match Point claims to be about ambition and obsession, which it is, but, more to the point, it examines the often overlooked but all-important role luck plays in determining outcomes. Just as the poor and wealthy have no control over what social class they have been born into, what a person desires (ambition) or who a person desires (obsession) is every bit as random and subject to the amoral forces of the universe. It is not for nothing that early in the film Chris bones up on his Dostoevsky (one of many tacks to impress his superiors as a cultured autodidact).
"Hard work is a given," Chris says at one point. In a tip of the hat, Allen has Wilton, who turns out to be a natural for corporate politics, deny that he is extremely aggressive. As he deftly counters, "I am naturally competitive." Little doe he know the film will turn into Crime and Punishment, and that his killer instinct will prove his best, fortuitously bestowed natural gift.