And yet… and yet few would argue that these drab annual efforts have also been punctuated by films which, while only rarely justifying the ubiquitous ‘return to form’ label, still contain enough of that old Woody magic to cause even the most thoroughly disillusioned of his fans to return to theatres year after year. When it comes to what constitutes the hits and misses amid Allen’s recent output I often seem to be at odds with the majority view. I found Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) engaging but hard to love, I simply couldn’t stand the inexplicably Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris (2011), and I maintain that those who claim to have found depth, drama or indeed anything even remotely worthwhile at all in Match Point (2005) must have watched an entirely different film from the series of clunky, painful scenes I saw. On the other hand, I enjoyed the oft-panned Scoop (2006), was bowled over by Radha Mitchell’s performance(s) in Melinda and Melinda (2004), and – here is where it appears I must part company with most of the civilised world – I bloody loved Cassandra’s Dream (2007).
One of Allen's London-based curate's eggs, the film sees Ewan McGregor and Colin Farell play a pair of feckless brothers who sink what little money have into a sailing boat, the titular Cassandra’s Dream, along with their fantasies of freedom, before a rich surgeon uncle enmeshed in financial improprieties, played by Tom Wilkinson, dangles before them the quick solution to all their woes: murder a business associate. What follows is a maelstrom of paltry dreams destructively pursued, free will disguised as fatefulness, and thorny familial co-dependency. Standard Woody Allen fare, in other words. But, for me, what’s most interesting is how the whole thing is played out as a kind of grim cockney caper à la Get Carter, but with Allen’s insistence on philosophical musings and cultural allusions – Greek tragedy in this case – giving the film a quality unique in the director's body of work, a quality which admittedly may well seem jarring to those unable to flex their expectations of what should or shouldn’t constitute a British crime movie.
Despite what the critics had to say about all of this, there is actually a lightness of touch from Allen when it comes to the classical literary references and a cautiousness around representation of the natives, both of which were profoundly absent in the frequently ridiculous Match Point: in the earlier film the characters would arrange to meet beneath Big Ben and spend their evenings watching Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; here they simply go the pub and watch television. There are a few tinny echoes of Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), the characters’ culpability and guilt for their murderous deeds seeming at once fixed yet at the same time guided by a slippery, frightening existential mechanics. But whereas Crimes and Misdemeanours was leavened with Allen’s trademark romcom humour, here he instead ramps up the bleakness, inviting ridicule. Which Cassandra’s Dream duly and fulsomely received.
I've often thought about this and tried to puzzle out why it is I enjoy this film when it is apparently so unforgivably terrible. There's always a personal element to the liking or disliking of any particular film. I only became aware of the critical response of Cassandra’s Dream after first seeing the film and was surprised, not just because of the critics' abject hostility but also their undeniable unanimousness in what they took issue with. I even suspected I'd somehow managed to see a wildly different cut of the movie. But no: invariably these reviews – brutal to a fault – focused on the disparity of accents between the two supposed brothers, the awkward dialogue, and the actors' occasionally faltering line-reading, all of which are indeed present but none of which I’d found I'd minded particularly. For me, the drama was all in the detail. It was in the nuanced performances by Farrell and McGregor (surely his best since Young Adam), in the gloomy cinematography from the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond brooding, and in the snaky score from Philip Glass.