The lives of a group of people whose passions, ambitions and anxieties force them all into assorted troubles that run the gamut from ludicrous to dangerous.
Some filmmakers embrace the world as a happy place full of promise. Some, like Woody Allen, observe life’s rich pageant and find it pointless, except, perhaps, to paraphrase Annie Hall, for the jokes. Any close watcher of Woody Allen may easily accept the proposition that by now, after one film a year for 40 years, give or take, this aging auteur holds certain cinematic home truths to be self-evident: the heart is a lonely hunter and marriage is prison; that happiness is elusive; and fate sucks because you can’t do anything about it (mostly because, it's, you know, fate).
Watts finds an emotionally authentic space within its familiar contours
These well-rehearsed dramatic morals visit the characters, like unhappy guests baring bad news, in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a movie where an ensemble of middle-class Londoners avoid dealing with their very real problems by a combination of artful self-delusion and what shrinks cheeringly call 'magical thinking’.
Still, this isn’t Allen in grim, high-angst Bergmanesque mode. Stranger is a melodrama, like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), revolving around a single family and their consorts and told in an airy, ironic style, though the jokes are neither as plentiful nor as robust as in that hit.
Allen, who once again writes and directs here, uses one of his favourite devices: the omniscient, unseen narrator who views the world he conjures and its creatures as foolish creations destined forever to be unfulfilled since the universe is notoriously and reliably indifferent. And just in case we don’t get the point, Allen has his alter-ego quote Shakespeare’s 'sound and fury signifying nothing’ speech.
The film’s two major incidental pleasures, and they are far from insubstantial, are its look and Naomi Watts. Allen’s vision of London is identical to that of his Paris and New York: a pretty world of moneyed low-key luxe, opera, jazz, and fine dining. Still, the gold embossed cinematography of the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond rescues the movie from Allen’s studied (and let’s be frank here, dead boring) 'realist’ style and underscores the fable-like mood.
Naomi Watts plays Sally, who is unhappily married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a one-hit wonder novelist. Earnest, fragile, and full of yearning and no pushover, Sally is the kind of part Allen wrote for Mia Farrow, over and over. But Watts, always a splendid actor, finds an emotionally authentic space within its familiar contours that overwhelms the dry rot in Allen’s writing. Or to put it another way, in a cast of emblematic types and hand puppets, Watts' Sally can be believed and felt. Still, the actors are fine – within this crooked context – but the dead hand of Allen’s 'leave 'em alone’ kind of directing doesn’t provide urgency or feeling; each has a subplot but it’s hard to invest in any of them since they are all played for light relief against Sally’s pain.
The plot has Sally’s mother, Helena (Gemma Jones), in meltdown after her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins, very funny), in the thrall of a late-life crisis, leaves her. She seeks solace in the form of Cristal (Pauline Collins), a psychic who advises Helena that not all hope is lost. Helena, who is written and played as a particular form of Brit twit, becomes convinced that Cristal’s prophecies are sound, despite the fact that everyone else in the movie reckons the woman is bogus.
Apt to pay unheralded visits on Sally and Roy, Helena becomes a kind of Greek chorus – offering predictions via Cristal on where her daughter and husband’s fortunes may be headed. Roy and Sally are scornful. But in the end, Cristal’s fanciful sounding predictions act as a kind of license for the pair to act on their secret romantic longings; Sally, an art curator with a loudly ticking body clock that Roy refuses to hear, pursues her handsome boss Greg (Antonio Banderas). Meanwhile, Roy, tired of Sally’s genuine complaints (which he reads as 'unsupportive’), turns his attentions away from his long-held-up second novel and directs them toward the beautiful girl next door, Dia (Freida Pinto), who he has been spying on for some time.
Hopkins' part is the Woody Allen role of later years; he’s a rich man who falls in love with a cute 'bimbo’ called Charmaine (Lucy Punch). She’s a mid-twenties actress who moonlights as a prostitute and, as the movie would have it, she’s had a brain bypass. This episode is pure farce but it’s a gag that’s not only dated, it’s nasty. Since Charmaine has none of the sharp tact of, say, Mia Sorvino’s bit in Mighty Aphrodite, it plays sour and cheap. As for the film’s 'bleak worldview’, Allen provides a happy ending for a couple of the characters; we’re supposed to feel good because they’re the ones who let life 'happen to them’.
When Stranger was first released in 2010, US and UK critics were harsh. They expected more from an Allen picture. My review is grumpy, but the film really isn’t bad and there’s a moment here of pure cinema that really soars and it has nothing to do with any of Allen’s worn-out intellectual pretensions or surly humour. It’s a haunting bit near the end; the shot is framed close on Naomi Watts, her gaze right down the barrel of the lens. She’s been counting on something and she realises that it is a dream that won’t ever come true and the look of innocent pain on her face is one of true helplessness. Allen builds the scene, starting it off light in tone before the mood settles to an all enveloping darkness. He’s rarely let himself touch this kind of anguish. In its raw emotional power, it suddenly makes Stranger a worthwhile experience.