Woody Allen has done just about everything in Cassandra’s Dream before. He may have even done it better in the past. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun the second time around. As recently as 2005 Allen was spinning a similar story about fate and desire with his wrongly acclaimed, dramatically inert Match Point. I shared little of the enthusiasm bestowed upon that film, other than a small amount of pleasure knowing that Allen was at least trying once again to make good films rather than dawdling in his own neuroses. I’m glad to say that Cassandra’s Dream, however simple and familiar it may be, suffers none of the woes that Match Point did. What read as a cold, pretentious detachment two years ago, plays as a winking playfulness here. Allen seems to like to play God in his dramatic works, guiding characters across destined events with a callous joy about their misfortunes. He leads them astray and then exacts his revenge as if the whole world’s justice could come to pass with his pen and his camera. But here, he strikes it rich with a little less self-righteousness and a little more self-awareness. When the devastatingly beautiful and tempting Angela (unknown Hayley Atwell making a stunning breakthrough) openly discusses the nature of a plays she’s been performing at a local theater as “moral” and “pessimistic,” the heavy handed self-reference goes far from unnoticed. Allen knows that none of this is new, but aims to please with small wonders. This isn’t a revolutionary film. The charm in this is just what a neatly packaged little present it is. If it’s at all conceivable to call a film about murder and death a delight, then this one would fit the bill. It balances dark doings with dry wit and turns out to be the most fully satisfying Allen film in years.
Adding to the solid formula are two superb performances by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as two brothers from a working class family. The former is an ambitious and debonair business investor modeling himself after their affluent uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) and parading around in clothes and cars he can’t afford to impress the aforementioned Angela. The latter is a working man mechanic with a big heart and a strong conscience that will ultimately prove problematic. When the two get into a financial jam they call on their devoted uncle to help them out but discover that he has ulterior motives. To get the problem fixing cash, they need to murder a former employee who may having damning information on Howard’s company. With the proposition in place, the two brothers embark on a quest of self-discovery that will reveal to them in funny, emotional, and authentically suspenseful moments just how far they are willing to go. Farrell, in particular, is remarkable here, if not entirely for the simple fact that he’s made so few good films as of late. Having bottomed out as a “movie star” he’s building a welcomed new momentum as a legitimate actor in deep character roles.