Monday, 9 October 2017

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

I do love that poster.

Coming immediately after Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight was viewed as a great disappointment and another ho-hum entry in Woody Allen's remarkably prodigious output. But it's really not as bad as many have made out - in fact it's a rather nice, frothy romantic comedy with more than a nod to the likes of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie.

Colin Firth is on fine curmudgeonly form as Stanley, a 1920s British professional magician who performs under the Oriental guise of Wei Ling Soo to great acclaim. In his spare time, the coldly rationalist and practical Stanley is a notorious debunker of phony psychics and mediums and it is this skill that takes him to the glorious south of France one summer to discredit Sophie Baker, a young American spiritualist played by Emma Stone, whose apparent gifts have impressed a clique of fashionable and wealthy Brits and Americans who are resorting on the Côte d’Azur. 

Stanley relishes the opportunity to take another fraud down and save her marks from parting with some of their fortunes but, as he witnesses at first hand Sophie's astonishing powers he finds his lifelong pessimism and general outlook rocked to their very foundations. 

Allen has long been fascinated with the notion of magic and it has played an integral role in many of his films, from the characters on the silver screen coming to life and entering the real world in The Purple Rose of Cairo, to Zelig's uncanny chameleon abilities. Ghosts and the notion of the afterlife have also previously appeared in his work, most recently in his London set movie Scoop. Here however, in the shape of Stanley, Allen takes a resolutely cynical point of view to such fantastical concerns whilst at the same time exploring what it takes to shape such a rational mind. In a scene that seems to hark back to Manhattan, Stanley and Sophie escape a sudden thunderstorm and take shelter in an observatory where Stanley reveals that when he first glimpsed the starry night sky as a child there, the thought of the universe beyond rather menaced him. It was just too big for him to consider and everything in Stanley's life from that point on could be argued as an attempt to couch the world and life in safe, easily comprehensible terms. 

Sophie on the other hand sees the starry sky and finds it romantic. They are complete opposites, Sophie believing that we should all embrace a level of delusion into our lives whilst Stanley seeks to understand and be able to explain everything, yet they start to fall for one another. It is only when Stanley begins to consider that Sophie may be the real deal that he starts to enjoy life, freed from his restrictive desire to have an answer for everything.

Both Firth and Stone are tremendously likeable and charismatic performers who are easy on the eye (especially in the beautiful vintage period costumes) and possess a lightness of touch that is just right for such fare, yet their chemistry is not as winning as it ought to be. The big problem here really is the age-gap (and the connotations of such an age-gap romance in Allen's own life are not lost on viewers) with their interplay more befitting of an acerbic uncle and a bright and carefree niece than potential lovers. The supporting cast, including Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Hamish Linklater, have relatively little to do (certainly Allen seems to forget Harden, McBurney and Weaver completely for long stretches of the narrative) but the whole thing is really rather lovely to look at - almost like a 1920s postcard of the French Riviera come to life - and it's best to let the whole thing wash over you.

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