Friday, 28 March 2008

Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen has always been one of the world’s most unique filmmakers. While his best work may be behind him, Allen continues to make films that inspire us to think deeply about what drives us and our society. In two of my favourite Allen films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, Allen explores the theme of violence and why it is so easy for some people to kill others. His view seems to be that this can only happen in a world without a God. Allen continues this theme in his new film, Cassandra’s Dream, but I detected something new in his pessimistic view.

Actually, the question which sprang immediately to mind after watching Cassandra’s Dream, was: What did Allen have in mind when he made this film? Was it supposed to be a serious suspense drama or a black comedy? Was it meant to be a believable tale about lower middle-class Londoners trying to rise above their class or a moral fable about the consequences of selling one’s soul to the devil? Was Allen trying to say something new (for him) about violence in our society? How one answers these questions will impact one’s opinion of the film in general.

On the surface, Cassandra’s Dream doesn’t seem to work. It’s the story of two brothers (played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) living in London who simultaneously find themselves in need of large sums of cash (in part, at least, because of a desire to impress the women in their lives, who are played well by Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins). Along comes Howard (played by Tom Wilkinson), the rich uncle who lives in California and makes the brothers an absurd offer that is difficult to refuse, resulting in plans for a murder and the journey of the brothers into ever darker and darker places. This story might have worked in a different setting and with different actors, but it doesn’t seem to work here (though at a certain level I did find it absorbing). Primarily because of the dialogue, which is occasionally quite strong but often rather weak, the film feels completely unnatural in its London setting. Having lived in London for the past six years and having watched many films located in London, I felt Cassandra’s Dream lacked credibility. I applaud Allen’s attempt to make a film about the poorer classes in Britain, but maybe that’s just not his area of expertise (as, for example, it is for Mike Leigh and Ken Loach).

One of the things that didn’t work in this film was the acting. The three male leads are all capable of excellent work but only Farrell (whom I would consider the weakest of the three) delivers a praiseworthy performance in this film. And even Farrell played a character (Terry) who was not really believable in the context. The acting of McGregor (miscast as Ian?) and Wilkinson was uneven and their characters even less believable, though this assessment needs to be qualified by noting that believable characters did lurk somewhere just below the surface. The film felt rushed and perhaps this accounts for some of the acting problems. The score by Philip Glass wasn’t bad but didn’t really work here either. The cinematography was okay, though it might have been better. So far, my review would suggest Cassandra’s Dream is a rather mediocre film. And perhaps it is exactly that. But, as I said earlier, I couldn’t help asking myself what Allen had in mind when he made the film.

To be specific, if the film was meant to be a black comedy or a simple moral fable, the above critique would be much gentler. In particular, McGregor, whose character had the lines which leaned towards black comedy, suddenly becomes the correct casting choice. This is especially evident when Ian is talking about violence. At one point, while talking to Terry, he compares their plans of murdering a man (to protect their uncle) to the way soldiers kill the enemy to protect their corrupt leaders and business interests (I’ll come back to this). Ian also tells Terry that killing is not unnatural; human life is naturally violent. These lines work in a black comedy, but not in a serious drama. Ian’s assertion that life is ironic likewise comes back to haunt him in a blackly comic way.

As mentioned at the beginning, the plot of Cassandra’s Dream reminds us of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. All three films present a pessimistic view of life and violence which suggest that our world no longer has a God or moral code which might prevent people from killing each other. But while all three films show us a man who can kill without experiencing a traumatic blow to his conscience, Cassandra’s Dream also shows us the opposite – someone who can’t excuse or live with what he’s done. And when Ian says they had no choice, Terry replies: “We always have a choice.” Does Terry give us hope that Allen is mellowing with age? The cynical pessimism is still there but so is the sense that we do have a choice and the wrong choice can rob us of our humanity and/or lead to tragic consequences.

At one point in Cassandra’s Dream, someone says: “Nobody wants to be selfish, but everybody is.” This is the kind of line which deserves much reflection. Cassandra’s Dream may be a flawed film, but we can still find some juicy Allen morsels to chew on. ***