In Woody Allen's 1979 masterpiece, Manhattan, the director's character, Isaac Davis, tries to capture his love for New York City in a book he's fussing with. The disaffected television writer references the titular borough and the tunes of George Gershwin, the hustle and the traffic, before settling on a simple, definitive statement: “New York was his town, and it always would be”.
No filmmaker was more identified with a location than Woody Allen and New York. The Brooklyn boy who disparaged Los Angeles set his films there year after year; they were the one constant in the constant change of the tightly gridded metropolis. There were departures as projects required, such as uncertain German Expressionist locale of 1991's Shadows and Fog (which was nonetheless filmed in a Queens studio), but when Allen announced that his 2005 movie Match Point would be shot and set in London, reactions took in the shocked and the suspicious.
The reasons for the move were varied – financial, personal, logistical – but the result was clear. Match Point was a return to the highest level for the filmmaker, drawing comparisons to 1989's masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors and setting in motion a creative revival as Allen traveled Europe and then his homeland, finding fresh inspiration and old comforts along the way. Here are five of the best—in order—from his exile.
1. Match Point (2005)
At the beginning of Match Point, the story of a former tennis pro, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who marries into a wealthy family and then threatens his position with an affair, manages to use “geezer”, “mate” and “kip” in mere sentences. It was if the worst fears of Allen's departure were coming true and he was falling for clichés, but then the mix of chumminess and condescension that marks Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) introducing Chris to his sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), eclipses the guidebook catchphrases. You could write entire essays on how Tom calls Chris “Irish”, and the film's universal themes of control, guilt and privilege soon assert themselves. Chris can't help pursuing Tom's girlfriend, Nora (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress, and the two outsiders to the Hewett clan gorge each other as a kind of private revenge before they become foes. The scenes between Rhys Meyers, with his cruel, chiseled face, and Johansson, with her voluptuous curves, have a primal passion that is unusual for Allen, but they make clear that there are extremes that Chris can't help acceding to, which makes his subsequent decision to excise the affair at the close of this fine drama sadly inevitable.
2. Blue Jasmine (2013)
San Francisco is not as far from New York as some of the European cities listed here, but it's a distinct haven offering the illusion of a second chance for Cate Blanchett's Jasmine Francis, a fallen Fifth Avenue society wife whose wealthy lifestyle has been curtailed by the arrest of her financier husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), for Bernard Madoff-like financial improprieties. Highly strung and flustered by the ordinary world, Jasmine comes to stay with her sister – the two were adopted – Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who works as a checkout clerk. Trying to fix her own situation, Jasmine soon influences Ginger against her mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and the film uses the debris of the financial crisis to expose the stratification of American society. At the centre of the movie is Blanchett's performance, which adds layer of upon layer of self-recrimination, deception and guilt upon Jasmine's increasingly fragile shoulders, slowly revealing that her demands for sympathy mask crucial failings she can't admit to. It's a role that has Blanchett in the Hollywood awards season race, although her director is already in post-production on his next feature, Magic in the Moonlight. The movie, which stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone, is set in the south of France.
3. Cassandra's Dream (2007)
Cassandra's Dream was the final instalment of what would become known as the director's unofficial London trilogy. After Match Point came the slight but amusing Scoop, a metaphysical comic-thriller with Allen (as a New York magician), Johansson and Hugh Jackman that looked at England with an outsider's eye, but Cassandra's Dream worked inside the London setting and applied a stern moral judgment to the milieu. The wealth of Match Point is put aside for the struggles of the suburbs, where a pair of brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), both want what they can't afford: the former is smitten with an ambitious actress (Haley Atwell); the latter can't close out a gambling habit. The movie reflects on the presence of class in Britain, depicting a stratified society where the only way to get ahead is through wealth, and it comes only through unfortunate sacrifice. The two turn to their wealthy uncle, Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who twists the pair to his needs and asks them to commit a murder for him. Their reactions are distinct, which makes you wonder about the nature of family even as Terry's guilt starts to alarm Ian. “Family is family. Blood is blood,” Howard tells them, and it proves tragically true.
4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
At first glance Allen's sojourn in Barcelona looked like it was in danger of becoming a Nancy Meyers movie, where the immaculately chic surface presented itself as a luxurious fantasy setting. Certainly few Catalan poets lives in homes as rustically stylish as that of the briefly seen father to Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who brazenly introduces himself to two American graduates, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson once more), one night in a restaurant. But if this brisk, romantic comedy, with its eruptions of passion both tender and angry, looked like the best investment Barcelona's tourist board ever made, it came with a melancholic undertow as the protagonists all struggled to attain what they thought they wanted. The catalyst is Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's unsettled former wife, whose dedication to her life and art leaves fissures in her wake. When he takes her back in after a suicide attempt, she falls into a relationship with Juan Antonio and Cristina that temporarily sticks, but there's always a gap between what we imagine and what prevails in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, even if the two Americans react to it in vastly different ways.
5. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Allen took great pleasure in this depiction of Paris as a city where great era upon great era literally dragged the willing back into the past so they could avoid the worries of the present. Rife with historic characters and in-jokes, it makes fine use of Owen Wilson's boyish enthusiasm, which only appears more fragile with each year. Wilson plays Gil Pender, another writer looking to change his trade, who arrives in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. With the trip foundering, the Paris devotee is picked up by a car one night that takes him back to the 1920s, where he soon meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates); at one point he seeks relationship advice from Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel (now that's a game show concept). Gil grows away from Inez, falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a 1920s cohort, but she herself dreams of living in Paris in the 1890s. It all resolves itself neatly, with a tidy lesson, but it's Allen at his most pleasurably slight, making one historical gag after another.
Match Point screens on SBS ONE this Saturday at 8:30pm.