You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is Woody Allen's 2011 London set comedy. It boasts an impressive cast including Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto and Naomi Watts, as well as several small screen UK greats like Philip Glenister, Anna Friel, Celia Imrie and Pauline Collins.
For a film that doesn't actually star its writer and director, as is his want these days to remain behind camera, his presence is still felt in every frame. I've long held the belief that each character, certainly each male character, in Woody's films is based on himself or a facet of himself. This is a film in which each facet/character is given extremely short shrift. The Hopkins character is a sad old man who, in a desperate desire to be young again, ditches his wife of some thirty years for a girl who isn't even yet thirty. Brolin's character is shown in a perpetual funk, an aimless writer fearful his best work was a fluke and now long behind him. Fate intervenes and offers him up a chance for one more success but is it as clear cut as he thinks it is? Whereas Banderas is an unhappily married man unable to see the love and devotion beneath his nose from his employee.
All faults that could easily be levelled at Woody in his personal and professional life a cynic, or realist, might suggest.
Clearly he gives himself or his characters no quarter here. But the characters are nonetheless sympathetic. For example the Hopkins role is one specifically to laugh at, 'the old fool', yet Allen doesn't shy away from revealing that character has suffered in life and deserves our sympathy. Even a fool has heartache.
The plot is slight yet still straddles such an ensemble cast, weaving its way through each character journey. Hopkins' ex wife (Gemma Jones) seeks some kind of spiritual therapy and consults Pauline Collins's sham fortune teller at the advice of her daughter, Naomi Watts (who knows she's a sham but feels her mother will benefit from the harmless placebo regardless) From there Jones becomes obsessed with the notion of past lives and the second chances available to people through fate and perhaps directly or indirectly each character undergoes large life changes.
It's not a return to form. It's not Annie Hall nor is it Manhattan. But it's also not Match Point, thank God! What it is however is a slight (90 minutes) mildly amusing film in a wry smile kind of way. The biggest success in the whole thing is Lucy Punch as Anthony Hopkins new wife, a former prostitute (they met 'on business') and aspiring actress; a gold digger by any other name. There's shades of Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite to her character and it's played to perfection. However I do feel Punch, once predicted as a promising British talent Stateside, is fast becoming typecast in these kind of airheaded bimbo with a cruel streak roles. But there's no denying she plays them incredibly well and her partnership alongside a twitchy neurotic and eager to please Hopkins (itself a departure from his usual boorish performances) is the film's highlight. Just they're first scene together is a joy and shows you just how good Allen is at finding the comedy in a tracking shot - a trick I've admired of his since his throwaway yet laugh out loud surprise appearance during Meryl Streep's big introduction in Manhattan
Like I say it's not without faults. Like a lot of Allen films there's a dialogue problem, and one that is perhaps heightened here as the English setting shows up that we're divided by our common language. Too often characters don't seem to converse, instead they just state their personality or their current situation/predicament to keep the plot going. But this is a criticism that can equally be levelled at his work in his native country; it's a style unique to him I guess, but sometimes it does come off obvious, laboured or bizarre in some actor's mouths.
Another example of the huge difference in our culture to that off America, certainly in film, is the notion that Josh Brolin's character could spy on Freida Pinto in the next building, flirt with her from his window across the courtyard and openly admit to perving on her and her fiancee getting it on one night and she actually laughs and decides to leave her beau for him! It might be like that in the States, but over here, that's not a start to a whirlwind romance that's a court order for stalking!
I also found it stupidly and unintentionally funny when Naomi Watts asks Antonio Banderas if he's sober enough to drive back home to Maida Vale! You just don't expect the Latin matinee idol Antonio Banderas to reside in Maida Vale!! Madrid yes, Manhattan yes, Maida Vale? Hilarious!
In summary if you like Woody it's definitely worth a watch, and even if you don't it passes an hour and a half on on a rainy afternoon say.
I'll leave you with one of the best lines from Gemma Jones after a chance at new romance stalls;
"He's left me for another woman, a deceased woman...they do say they're the stiffest competition"