Cassandra’s Dream, Dir. Woody Allen, Now Playing
In an interview with the London Guardian in 2004, while filming in that city, Woody Allen said of his recent spate of films, “If I keep working, I think it’s possible that I could do a great film by accident.” This concept of brilliance by mistake sounds promising, but it just isn’t happening. Allen has released eight films since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and some have been good but most have been dreadful, culminating in the worst two hours of my life: Match Point. Some artists torture themselves striving towards perfection: Stanley Kubrick, say, or Joseph Heller, who spent eight years writing Catch 22. Not Allen. He churns out crap film after crap film in the hope that, one day, he’ll get lucky.
Cassandra’s Dream is the (one prays) final instalment of Allen’s London-based trilogy, following the abysmal yet critically acclaimed Match Point, and the rather-improved Scoop. Like Match Point, Dream is a “tragedy,” playing on themes from Greek mythology—family, murder, lust. The title refers to the name of a greyhound upon which Terry (Colin Farrell) places a bet and wins, enabling him and his ferrety brother Ian (Ewan McGregor) to buy a boat (Cassandra, a beautiful princess in Greek lore blessed by Apollo with the gift of prescience, but also cursed to never be believed—her story has absolutely no relevance to the plot whatsoever, so presumably Allen just picked the name to evoke doom). In fulfilling their aspiration towards a better life, the boat inspires reckless ambition in both brothers, leading to murder and despair with some incredibly hammy acting along the way.
Why does Allen insist on pontificating on social worlds that he knows absolutely nothing about? Cassandra’s Dream forms a half-arsed treatise on working-class London, complete with misery, poverty, and the banal and clunky dialogue you’d expect from the long-running British soap Eastenders. “It’s a cruel world, Terry,” the unattractive, unsympathetic and entirely unconvincing McGregor tells Farrell, who is more believable when he isn’t lapsing from his cockney accent into a Ballykissangel brogue. Terry is a rather sweet and endearing mechanic who drinks and gambles his way into fantastic debt. “When I saw [Colin] on the first day of shooting,” says Allen, “he was the real deal—he looked and sounded like the garage mechanic incarnate.” Which leads me to wonder how many cockney garage mechanics Allen knows, because none of the cockneys that fixed my car ever looked anything like Colin Farrell. Still, his performance is slightly better than the others, especially McGregor, whose over-egged portrayal of ambition personified suffers deeply from Allen’s ludicrous dialogue. “Have you ever made love outside?” McGregor flatly asks initial love interest Lucy, without a modicum of lust. This is of course before he meets and becomes obsessed with Angela, the big-breasted fulfilment of Ian’s (and presumably Allen’s) fantasies. Angela, played rather half-heartedly by bosomy newcomer Hayley Atwell, echoes Scarlett Johansen’s character in Match Point, a beautiful, conniving and mercenary actress who inspires men to do Very Bad Things. Cherchez la shiksa.
Angela may be bad, but Uncle Howard proves the real villain. Howard (Tom Wilkinson in a disappointing role) is Ian and Terry’s maternal uncle, an East-End boy done good, who has mysteriously made a fortune in Los Angeles as a plastic surgeon. Howard’s sister and nephews idolize him incestuously as he proffers cash in abundance and sweeps them all off to Claridge’s for lunch in a horrifyingly clichéd play on social worlds. The benign benefactor becomes a snarling, vicious beast when he agrees to help the brothers out of their financial hole, but demands something in return—murder. Cue lots of Hamlet-inspired dramatic guilt from Terry, and an alarmingly quick disengagement of morals from Ian. Then follows a series of entirely ludicrous scenes involving a homemade gun, and lots of swirling, Hitchcock-esque music by Philip Glass. A homemade gun? Really? Maybe Allen seeks to showcase the brothers as the painfully amateur gangsters that they are, but I doubt it.
It’s no secret that Allen has a somewhat bleak view of human nature, but when he interprets this outlook into tragedy, it borders on the ridiculous. He’s played with these themes before, in Melinda and Melinda, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, but never has the final product been so unfailingly unentertaining. Inexplicably, Match Point was hailed as a welcome return to form, despite being a horrible enactment of a horrible script, and having Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as one of the most wooden and least sympathetic protagonists ever. It’s as if Allen turned to England as a locale not because he seeks new inspiration, but because the funny accents disguise how bad his contemporary scripts can be. Allen called Match Point “arguably the best film that I’ve made.” Later he conceded, “I hope it’s not just that the English voices are so beautiful to my ear that they cover a multitude of my sins.” Hmm. Cassandra’s Dream is another example of Allen failing to write about what he knows. To a native Londoner, the film is an awkward and insulting interpretation of working-class dreams and reality. Tellingly, it’s not being released in the UK.
It’s hard to say what’s most galling about this film, and even harder to find redeeming aspects. Neither realistic enough to be believable, nor stylized enough to be intellectual, it makes you wonder why Allen ever abandoned comedy. Another Cassandra says, in an infinitely superior Allen film, Mighty Aphrodite, “I see disaster. I see catastrophe. Worse, I see lawyers!” This movie’s only concession to humor is when you’re laughing at how bad it is. Whether it’s capricious Hayley begging Ian, “Take me to California,” with the wide-eyed desire of a goldfish, or Terry crafting a homemade gun in his garage with nothing more than ball-bearings, superglue and a block of wood, it’s enough to make you beg for a respite. It’s not that Allen can’t do tragedy. But his style works infinitely better when one isn’t being pressured to take it seriously.
Sophie Gilbert, a native Londoner, writes on film and culture.
London, England's Sophie Gilbert is a secret fan of Disney movies who currently resides in Queens.