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Movie of the Day: Match Point (2005)

“The man who said "I'd rather be lucky than good" saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.”
In "Match Point," Woody Allen, caught in one of his more "serious" moods, takes a simple tale about marital infidelity and turns it into something complex and fascinating. Although he leaves a trail of clues implying that this is to be another of his homages to Fyodor Dostoevsky, the film really turns out to be Allen's own version of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" (albeit set in England, perhaps to throw us off the scent). The parallels between the two works are not perfect, of course - in fact they often seem to be intentionally inverted - but they are close enough to make us wonder if Allen did, indeed, do it all on purpose.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a down-on-his-luck social climber who marries into wealth but longs for the passion he finds with another woman. Chris is a professional tennis player who decides to leave the circuit when he realizes he hasn't the skill to compete with the real pros. Taking a job as an instructor at a posh, highly exclusive tennis club, Chris finds himself wining and dining with the rich and famous after one of his pupils, Tom Hewett, takes a liking to him and introduces Chris to his snooty but accepting family. Chris begins to date Tom's warmhearted sister, Chloe, but he is really smitten by an aspiring American actress, Nola, who just happens to be Tom's fiancé. Chris makes the mistake of marrying Chloe before Tom and Nola call off their engagement and go their separate ways. The fact that Nola is free but he is not doesn't deter Chris from pursing an affair with the woman who provides all the passion and excitement his loving but boring wife cannot. But Chris soon discovers that carrying on an affair can result in a life filled with secrecy, lies, guilt and self-loathing. And when the going gets to be just a bit too much for our hero to handle…well, there's always that "final solution" lurking in the wings, as many an earlier adulterer has discovered to his everlasting regret.
"Match Point" starts off very slowly and seems at first as if it will be just another tale of adultery and unrequited love. Yet, Allen really knows how to draw us into Chris' predicament, so that, by about halfway into the film, we feel as enmeshed in his seemingly irreconcilable dilemma as he himself is. Torn between the wealth and position he has as Chloe's husband and the love he feels for the relatively impoverished Nola, Chris is frozen into a state of paralyzing indecisiveness, his every waking moment a tormenting hell of fear and gathering dread as he keeps waiting in breathless anticipation for that other shoe to drop. It isn't until the "other woman" becomes more of a burden than his clinging wife that Chris can finally launch into action. This turnabout in the screenplay might strike many in the audience as arbitrary and implausible and there is certainly a case to be made for that. But if you can go with the flow, you will be delighted by all the little ironies Allen throws at us in the final stages of the story, which help to underline the filmmaker's thesis that, for all the efforts we make to control our lives, The Fickle Finger of Fate - or in this case a tennis ball precariously balancing on the top of a net trying to figure out which way to fall - always has the final word.
Allen has written dialogue that is incisive, intelligent and literate, and the performances he's drawn from the likes of Rhys-Meyers, Goode, Emily Mortimer, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Wilton are superb down to the tiniest detail. Allen keeps his camera tightly focused on his characters, rarely pulling away from them much beyond a middle distance, keeping us firmly locked in the near-claustrophobic drama. Here is a movie that demands patience at the beginning but that really sneaks up on you the longer you watch it… 9/10


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