Maybe it’s just me, but Woody Allen has been slightly obsessed with death recently. Specifically, death with accents. Like his last two films, his newest effort, Cassandra’s Dream, concerns the moral and ethical choices we all face at some point in our lives. Namely, how far would you go to get what you want. And it takes place in London.
This time around, though, Allen shakes things up a bit. The most glaring difference between this and any of his other films is not only is Allen himself not in the movie, but it’s hard to picture him in any of the main roles. He’s finally made a film where not only has he stepped completely behind the camera in person, he’s back there in spirit as well, and the result is a gritty, stylized drama with bits of humanity so raw it almost hurts to watch.
The plot follows two brothers, Terry and Ian (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) who are as different as brothers can be and yet are very much related. They start off the film by buying a boat called Cassandra’s Dream, a purchase neither can really afford. But this lack of funds doesn’t stop them. In fact, it sets the stage for everything to follow.
As the film progresses, each of the brothers finds himself in desperate need of cash, for different reasons, certainly, but the drive is the same. If they don’t get the money their lives will not turn out the way they planned. Enter Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), the very wealthy brother of the boys’ mum. He is only too happy to supply the money, but there is a price to be paid. It is that price which lies at the heart of Allen’s film.
Howard needs the boys to “do away with” a troublesome informant, one who, if he testifies, could land Howard in jail for a long time. The boys aren’t sure what to do. Inveterate gambler Terry wants to walk away while shrewd business man Ian thinks this might be their only solution. Allen is giving us the two sides of the argument, populating it in contradictory terms. The rough looking, hard-drinking guy turns out to be the one with a moral conscience while the smooth talking, clean-cut entrepreneur has the moral flexibility of a Wall Street assassin. In this way, Allen seems to be channeling Peter Barnes’ brilliant 1972 farce The Ruling Class but with a new millennium sensibility.
The performances are spot on. Farrell is cast against type as the rougher brother while McGregor completely inhabits the empty soullessness of Ian. It is these two who really sell the whole concept of the film. If they fail, the film goes with them but it’s a credit to Allen’s skills that he lets them interact properly, playing off each other as brothers and not as mouth-pieces for a side of an argument, which they could have easily become.
Like most of Allen’s cinematic efforts, simplicity is the key. Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is wonderfully understated, showing off simply by showing what’s there, and the soft score by Philip Glass is some of his best work in a long time. But really, the focus here is on Woody Allen. As a writer/director, he is exploring the existentialism of life and death, a topic he’s been dancing around for some time. Only now, with himself out of the primary picture, he can explore with impunity, and the result is a film which offers no easy answers but opens up the conversation in a way it can be discussed openly and honestly. And that is no mean feat.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)