Match Point by Celestino Deleyto

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

 

One of us, one of us

Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

By Celestino Deleyto

 

            Match Point starts as a remake of A Place in the Sun (1951), itself an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and half way through its narrative, before the spectator has had time to realise, it has become a remake of Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), sharing with both and with other Allen films, their concern with the existence (or not) of a moral universe. Repeating a thematic strand of Manhattan (1979), the film starts and perhaps finishes with the importance of luck as opposed to intelligence, skill, wealth or principles. The tennis metaphor of the beginning – sometimes the ball hits the net and for a second we don’t know which side it’s going to fall on – is as powerful and as obvious as the ophthalmologist/eyes of God motif in Crimes, except that it packs more irony and complexity than it appears to at first sight: the narrator explains in the pre-credit sequence that when you are unlucky and the ball falls on your side you lose, and when it falls on your opponent’s side you win. The spectator may at this point already be thinking: or maybe it falls on your side and you win, or it falls on the other side and you lose even if you thought you were going to win. All of this remains unsaid at the beginning but becomes a crucial part of the narrative after its final few twists. Contrary to appearances, the ending – a family reunion which reminds us of the ending of Hannah and her Sisters (1986) – may be more devastating and more optimistic, depending on the point of view, than that of Crimes: while at first sight it may seem that there is no grand design in the universe – no natural bond, as Shakespeare would put it – and that heinous crime goes unpunished, the spectator may also interpret the final moments as suggesting that the criminal is indeed punished and in a more severe way than by being discovered, and that, therefore, retributive justice does indeed exist.

 

    There is also a great deal of irony in the presentation of the English upper-class family. British reviewers and spectators predictably objected to various aspects of Allen’s first go at setting one of his films in England, but hard to believe though it may seem, the New York director succeeds at offering a chilling social portrayal of this class from the outsider’s perspective. Allen may have got some of the details wrong precisely because of his lack of experience of this social group but his is the perspective of the great majority, which can only ever look at this privileged elite and interpret it – and suffer it – from the outside. In this sense, neither the Irish working-class upstart protagonist Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) nor, much less, his down-on-her-luck aspiring actress lover Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) can dream of even competing with a group of characters who, at first sight, seem the innocent victims of their machinations, but eventually prove to be much more rotten morally, perhaps not individually but certainly as a class. Allen and his magnificent ensemble of British actors realise and perfectly convey that the more polite, generous and friendly that they seem to be the more arrogant, ruthless and unassailable they become. Chris’s final tragedy may lie less in what he has done than in having become part of a family which will always consider him inferior and an outsider no matter how much they appear to welcome and support him.  

            The film seems to argue that the difference between Chris's and Nola’s attitudes towards the Hewetts is related to their nationalities. Irish-born Chris has been more familiar with the outsider’s perspective on the upper-classes and his fascination with them has become part of his identity. U.S. American Nola, on the other hand, is no Jamesian character and has been too far away from them to appreciate them much more than as a tourist attraction. But this is also her final tragedy: her failure to understand to what extent Chris can be driven by a fascination she cannot understand and much less share. Rhys Meyers and Johansson’s performances convey not only the urgency and power of sexual desire but, more suggestively, especially for a Woody Allen movie, how that power is nothing compared to the power of social class, especially in Britain. Such seasoned analysts of social class in Britain as Kenneth Loach, Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh have every reason to be jealous.

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