23 September 2014


If you're keeping up at home, Woody Allen has made around 46 films for cinema. Most of those have come on a more or less annual basis since Annie Hall and since 2000, if you're to believe the popular consensus, a couple of those have been brilliant and the rest have been rubs. And so, like clockwork, after the acclaimed Blue Jasmine broke out and landed Cate Blanchett an Oscar, here comes the unreasonably drubbed Magic In The Moonlight.

While most sharpen their pens until they can crown the prolific writer-director's next "return to form", this is actually a perfectly charming entry in his canon, which immediately benefits from the casting of Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Firth plays Stanley, a misanthrope and a sceptic by day and a world-class magician by night. His friend and fellow magician Howard drafts him in to debunk the psychic abilities of Stone's beguiling American, Sophie Baker, who is holding seances for the well-to-do of 1920s England. The experience confronts Stanley with the possibility that there really might be such a thing as unexplainable and irrational magic.

In truth, there's literally no way that we would know if this is rubbish, with Emma Stone standing at the front of it, all perfect and such, but we'll get to that. Of the Woody Allen films that I've seen, I tend to prefer the ones in which he doesn't star, even if his leading men are transparently channelling his own brand of neurotic self-exploration. Stanley's grouchy lectures on existence and rationality have been worked over thoroughly in some of Allen's other 40-odd films, but it doesn't necessarily follow that he's just going back to the well for new scripts.

There's the Windsor Light Condensed house-style of the opening credits and the general feeling that the script is slightly more theatrical than cinematic, but it's still tough to think of when he last turned out a story like this one. There's more than enough range in his filmography to really keep us guessing too- these films have dabbled in magical realism, so why can't it turn out that Sophie, as the exception which proves the rule, actually does have magic mind-reading powers?

The dynamic between Stanley and Sophie probably calls for a Cary Grant and a Rosalind Russell, and Firth and Stone essay those character types so well that it's surprisingly easy to excuse the age gap between them, especially as romance is kept off the cards for a long time into their one-sided battle of wits. Firth spends much of the film talking himself around in circles, but then look who's writing. This is fine for the most part, but threatens to unstick the film in the third act, after a surprising revelation. The seemingly endless stretch of verbal procrastination that follows might have held some interest if we knew anything about the fiancee that Stanley is discussing, who instead comes off as a Maris or Mrs. Columbo type.

But as mentioned, Stone is the reason it all holds together so well. Having been released from the quagmire of Sony's Spider-verse in quite a misjudged fashion earlier this year, this is probably what we can expect in the future from an actress who goes from strength to strength with every film. She hams it up magnificently to meet Stanley's prejudices, all wide eyes and fingers on her temples, but effortlessly brings more depth and charm to Sophie as she goes along. Just as with the supporting characters that Sophie has beguiled, from Hamish Linklater's besotted twit to Simon McBurney's incredulous hanger-on, no audience would be able to tell if this was all a sham anyway- Stone sells it too well.

Nihilism has never been so fluffy as it is in Magic In The Moonlight, a romantic comedy in which that elusive, irrational kind of magic that Stanley seeks can only equate to one thing. Colin Firth and Emma Stone keep things lively, with the latter proving that she's born to play this kind of old-fashioned female lead, but if the film is a trifle, it's a trifle that has plenty of charms and doesn't linger. In terms of story and its place in Allen's filmography, it's about a medium.

Magic In The Moonlight is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Magic In The Moonlight, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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