Matchpoint hits the mark

Iconic director Woody Allen is known for exploring tragically humorous human anxieties in his films. In their relationships, Allen’s characters, like ordinary people, often get too caught up in their psychological angst, and end up making their lives more difficult than necessary. But while Allen’s newest film, Matchpoint, explores similar themes, it does so from a much darker, grimmer angle.

Viewers expecting Woody Allen’s usual tongue-in-cheek style are bound to leave the theater uneasy. Through the story of a young man whose obsessions get the best of him, Allen shows that while we as people are capable of ruining the lives of others, the most profound tragedy of all is the way our inner agonies can bring forth a personal hell. Our lives may take externally lucky turns, but in the end it is our own anxieties that control our happiness. Matchpoint is Woody Allen’s noir, set in modern Europe but commenting on universal issues of class, money, and selfish desire.

“There are moments in a tennis match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back,” says Chris Wilton — Bend It Like Beckham’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers — in the film’s opening speech. “With a little luck, it goes forward and you win, or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.”

“Luck is preparation meeting opportunity,” Rhys-Meyers said in a conference-call interview with The Tartan. “My character recognizes this and takes his chances.” From playing Brian Slade in The Velvet Goldmine to his performance as Elvis in a recent mini-series, Rhys-Meyers claims to be often offered roles that carry a sense of moral ambiguity. Despite Chris’ questionable actions and motives in the film, Rhys-Meyers believes the viewer is easily drawn to him as a character. “Everyone understands the idea of moral flaws. No one knows what we think in our deepest, darkest hours. Chris Wilton does what most people don’t do: He acts out his fantasies.”

In the film, Chris, a retired tennis pro, takes on a job teaching at an upscale country club in London. He befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), one of his students, and even starts dating Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). With Chloe’s help, he lands a high-paying job at her father’s company, and suddenly he’s entrenched in the high-class circles of London. But despite his new, comfortable life, Chris doesn’t hesitate to initiate an affair with Tom’s American fiancee Nola Rice, played by Scarlett Johansson. Driven by passion disguised as love, Chris continues his fixation with Nola even after he marries Chloe. Before long, Chris is forced to make a choice between the two women, and meanwhile decide whether he is strong enough to leave the high societal status he’s found.

Although London functions as an ideal backdrop for the story, Allen originally set Matchpoint in New York, a common setting for his films. Due to financial troubles, however, he changed locations. Emily Mortimer, who plays Chris Wilton’s betrayed wife, said that Allen looked at this particular film as “a lucky movie”; his initial struggles with money and setting in the end turned to his advantage. “It was easily transferred [from New York to London],” Rhys-Meyers said. “They are very comparable in how sophisticated, metropolitan and international they are.”

As a director, Woody Allen places much emphasis on and trust in his actors, even in a film that is very different from his usual work. According to both Rhys-Meyers and Emily Mortimer, Allen prefers very little rehearsing or talking about the script; in fact, he leaves actual directing to a minimum. “Working with Woody Allen was one of the easiest experiences I’ve ever had. He trusted me as an actor,” Rhys-Meyers said. “He allowed me to bring my own characterization in every sense.”

“The first time we said our lines to one another was usually the first take,” explained Mortimer. “In that sense Woody was different from every other director I’ve worked with.”

“You just have to be in the scene, stay in the moment and concentrate,” she added. “The finished product is startlingly close to the script I read; I never felt like we were being puppeteered. It’s a testament to his genius that we didn’t feel directed.”

Mortimer’s character, Chloe, is in her straightforwardness and naivete, very different from Woody Allen’s usual female characters. Although she’s often close to catching Chris’s infidelity, she remains oblivious. From the beginning of the film, her love for Chris is nearly blind. “I don’t believe in luck,” Chloe says in an early scene, disagreeing with the film’s overall theme. “I believe in hard work.”

“[Chloe] is an interesting one because she is not neurotic or introspective,” Mortimer said. “She is not that complex but still has a Woody Allen girl in her. There is gentleness in her forgiveness.”

“Woody Allen writes wonderful parts for women,” Mortimer continued. Coming from a wealthy home, Chloe is very representative of an upper-class woman in Britain, a character many Brits do not view in a positive light. According to Mortimer, “[Britons] are neurotic about class, and find posh girls like Chloe annoying.” Woody Allen, she said, looked away from that stereotype.

Matchpoint has been praised as some of Woody Allen’s best work in years. While some may be surprised by his obvious change of tone, audiences are likely to appreciate the film’s emotional candor and the strength of character that Allen’s actors bring to the screen.