There was a certain sense of pulling the short straw in being the one to approach Magic in the Moonlight, this year’s Woody Allen film, which tend to hit our shores around this time. Being a yearly occurrence essentially ever since the late 1960s, the annual new Woody Allen film must have once felt like an eagerly awaited holiday, especially through his creative peak of the late seventies until the early nineties 1. Nowadays, the more apt comparison is that it sometimes feels like a yearly obligation closer to a dentist’s appointment. In any case, with low expectations and eyes in a continual state of rolling I approached Magic in the Moonlight, which had even less buzz than usual (whether this was a reflection of the general level of enthusiasm for the film, or fallout from the Farrow allegations earlier in the year, it’s hard to tell). And considering my strong dislike for his previous two efforts, To Rome with Love and Blue Jasmine, it’s even more surprising how much I was won over by this film. A film of moderate ambition, and the closest narrative to the classic Woody Allen dynamic since 2009’s (probably underrated) Whatever Works, Magic finds Allen in comfortable territory that delivers one of the most likeable and sound Allen scripts in a while.
Colin Firth plays an English magician Stanley, the man behind famed Oriental illusionist Wei Ling Soo, invited to the South of France to debunk a supposed American psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). The usual Allen dynamic clicks between the two straight away, like that in Manhattan or any other Allen romance – Stanley is older, misanthropic and cynical, and from his profession, believing in a world of rationality. Firth gives a very theatrical performance that sticks out at first, but really finds himself comfortable in the role and by extension, Allen’s shoes. Stone presents the possibility of a completely different perspective; irrational, spontaneous and fitting the mould of Allen muse like a glove, radiant and effortlessly charismatic on screen.
This relationship will be familiar to Woody fans and detractors, but through the script there’s a clever tweak – the metaphor of magic is really effective, as Stanley opens himself up to the possibility that there may be something beyond mere rationality and the pessimism always associated with Allen’s protagonists; his growing openness to the belief in magic is correlated with the growing rapport between the two and in a pretty delicate way, the magic or that something beyond the realm of rationality turns out to be love itself. It’s a metaphor that on paper sounds ham-fisted and corny, but Allen’s script disguises the unravelling metaphor discreetly in a screenplay that uses sleight of hand in concealing its message, and the final act is extremely effective – completely predictable and tightly written, but feeling organic and authentic. It’s akin to a perfect pop song, where the joys aren’t in unexpected deviations (though there is one great swerve that genuinely took me by surprise) or innovation, but more in its execution, hitting the right notes that the audience expects, with sincerity and precision. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t re-inventing the wheel, but it’s such a well-measured and sincere film that it should win over even cynics like myself who continually write Woody off.
For the second film in a row, Allen has turned to widescreen, shooting in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio which is in itself an interesting choice – before last year, Allen had only used that aspect ratio for Manhattan and Anything Else 2. It’s an interesting choice, the wider ratio generally not used for talk-heavy films like Allen’s, but it takes advantage of the wonderful southern French seaside, and Khondji’s sun-drenched, colourful cinematography deliberately recalls two of the most beautiful CinemaScope films ever made, from the same region – Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. It’s still a little jarring – there’s occasionally some wasted space at the far ends of the frame, and for a cinephile seeing the 1920s and 30s costumes and makeup in a widescreen frame does feel like a certain clashing visual style.3 I’d love to see Allen shoot a period picture like this in Academy ratio, but it is mostly pleasing to the eye, and combined with Allen’s loving recreation of the particular time and place, makes me respond to the glossy look of the film more positively than the garish magic hour overload of his recent city-porn films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and To Rome with Love.
This hints at another element to the film, which is the engagement with and allusions to artistic works and the nostalgic cultural memories and imaginations of years past. The film lodges itself into the historic genre of, to borrow a term from an undergraduate class I once took, ‘transatlantic negotiations’ of artworks that came out in the 19th and 20th centuries involving American and European cultures colliding, including novels by Henry James and Fitzgerald, a genre which informs the central relationship here. The film references Nietzsche as well as key cinematic works – the strong and expansive relationship Stanley has with his aunt is really effective, and his introducing her to the young, red-headed Sophie is a nice nod to An Affair to Remember, in addition to the visual influences mentioned above. It’s a far cry from the relentless barrage of high-brow Bergman and McLuhan references from Allen’s Annie Hall era, but there’s a respect towards the audience (but crucially, not in a pretentious or alienating way) in its engagement with culture that I think has been missing from Allen’s films over the last decade.
Ultimately, this is a strong, funny and extremely charming film that finds a winning Woody Allen formula, even if in very familiar and comfortable territory. Though I loathe terms like ‘return to form’, there’s a lot in the film that I’ve found for the most part lacking in his recent output. As unthinkable as it seems at the moment (production on Untitled 2015 Woody Allen Project is already underway, with DOP Khondji and Stone promisingly returning) one day there won’t be an Allen every year, so all the more reason to enjoy the good ones.
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