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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Woody Allen serves up a winner with "Match Point"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Match Point," with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton. Written and directed by Woody Allen. 124 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality. Several theaters.

Woody Allen has woken up. There's a spark to his new movie, "Match Point," that's been missing in his work for some time, and it's the spark of a man who's fallen in love anew.

In this case, the object of his affection is not his usual New York, but another city: London, whose gray skies and well-mannered Victorian row houses give the film both freshness and elegance. If nothing else, "Match Point" is a fine illustration of the adage that it's always good to get out of town once in a while.

But the film, a meticulous drama reminiscent of Allen's 1989 "Crimes and Misdemeanors" but with a taut pace all its own, offers much more.

It's a tale of class, temptation and tragedy, rendered in the familiar Allen format but with few new twists: The literate conversations are delivered in posh accents, rather than an Allen-ish stammer; the location shots feature St. James Park instead of Central Park and the Tate Modern standing in for MoMA; and the soundtrack isn't classic jazz but scratchy opera recordings, indicating an older and more formal world.

Here, the central figure isn't an Allen doppelganger, but a confident young man on the make: Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, devilishly handsome), a former tennis pro who marries into an upper-class British family but can't keep his eyes (and hands) off his new brother-in-law's bombshell fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson).

"You play a very aggressive game," she purrs to Chris in her raspy voice, intrigued.

Allen meticulously shows us the velvet ropes tightening around Chris. With his marriage to wealthy Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who treats him as if he's a new toy that she's delighted with, he becomes part of the Hewett family.

Soon he's out shooting with his father-in-law (Brian Cox) in matching hunting vests and tattersall shirts, eating caviar in posh bars, and hanging out at the family's country house, drinking and smoking the rainy afternoons away.

It's a new life for Chris, and he knows that an affair with Nola means the risk of losing it all — but he can't keep away, and the story grows inexorably darker, as Rhys Meyers' model-pretty face becomes tighter and harder.

The cast members, all new to Allen's films, all do fine work with their carefully drawn characters. Mortimer's playgirl, an agreeable woman not blessed with self-awareness, eyes Chris — and the world — without ever really seeing it.

"I don't believe in luck, I believe in hard work," she chirps during a dinner conversation; with the confidence of someone who's never had to work hard.

Johansson, lusciously costumed in a white halter dress that wouldn't have looked out of place on Marilyn Monroe, gives Nola a brittle vulnerability, keeping our sympathies as she morphs from sweetness to fury as a cast-aside mistress.

And Rhys Meyers, previously best known as the hottie coach in "Bend It Like Beckham," likewise transforms in the course of the film. He begins as an unremarkable young man whose looks are his best asset; by the end, he's climbed the top of a ladder, staring coldly down at what he left behind.

Though it's far from a comedy, watching this film is a happy experience — it's a delight to realize that Allen, still making a film a year in his 70s, has a few more tricks up his sleeve.

"Match Point" isn't one of his truly great films, like "Annie Hall" or "Manhattan," but it's a very good one; a sign that a career that seemed stalled is purring along once more.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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