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January 29, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | January 29, 2008 |

Woody Allen’s best movies — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters — have been comedies flavored with genuine anguish. The laughs come when people can’t decide what they want, can’t effectively love or be loved, or can’t fend off a paralyzing fear of death. It’s no surprise, then, that when Allen tells ostensibly more tragic stories, a whiff of the comic trails along. In his psychological thrillers — like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and his latest, Cassandra’s Dream — characters bumble their way through crimes they’re not constitutionally equipped to commit. Like his bookish romantics, Allen’s criminals can’t get life straight.

Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) are brothers in a middle-class London family. Ian works at his father’s restaurant out of loyalty, and Terry is a mechanic. Both harbor hopes of making it big — suave Ian has an eye on the California hotel business; logy Terry chases luck at the poker table and the dog track — but neither has the scratch to really get started. Early in the movie, the two buy a cheap used boat and christen it Cassandra’s Dream after the 60-1 greyhound who came in to help pay for it.

When Ian meets Angela (Hayley Atwell), a stunning, high-maintenance actress, he feels an added urgency to turn his life around. And like every gambling problem, Terry’s is not all winners and boats. Soon enough, he’s down 90,000 pounds to a loan shark. By the end of the movie’s first act, the pair has reached the point of minimum money and maximum motivation, and that’s when we meet their Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). The family’s savior over the years, and a millionaire who has paid for both essentials and vacations, Howard comes through London between business trips. The brothers approach him for capital, and he’s willing to provide it, if they’ll do him the simple favor of killing someone due to testify against him and his practices.

Even more starkly than in Match Point, the central issues in Cassandra’s Dream are class and aspiration. The brothers are close when the story starts, and both decent people, but their different views of mobility come to strain their relationship. Ian, with his dapper suits and sly smile, is eager to transform himself in a way that’s alien to Terry, who wears a jacket stained from his time at the garage and a perpetually knotted brow. Terry’s happy to seek the temporary rush of winning a bet; Ian wants a permanent social upgrade.

Farrell’s character is appropriately named. A former star athlete, this Terry is kin to Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, a gentle soul tangled in a complex, dangerous situation with a smarter brother. Farrell occasionally relies too much on facial tics to show Terry’s thought process, but his tortured conscience is mostly convincing.

There are a few tonal mistakes, but the movie survives even the biggest of them — Howard becoming immediately enraged rather than calmly persuasive when the boys initially (and understandably) balk at what he’s asking. Farrell and McGregor make natural family, and their performances elevate Cassandra’s Dream past the overly praised (and overly long) Match Point. (Atwell is Allen’s buxom, wooden substitute for Scarlett Johansson here, but she’s not asked to carry nearly as much of the movie, and Sally Hawkins, as Terry’s chav-ish girlfriend, Kate, is terrific.)

Since Annie Hall appeared in 1977, there have been only two years (1981 and 1991) that didn’t see the release of at least one Woody Allen movie. Like Neil Young and Philip Roth in other fields, Allen seems admirably determined to remain prolific until the reaper knocks. He’s likely done making classics, but Cassandra’s Dream is his best in a decade.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.


Cassandra's Dream / John Williams

Film | January 29, 2008 |

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