You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Four years after Cassandra's Dream, Woody Allen returns to London to explore the lives of a group of people facing change. There's Helena (Gemma Jones), struggling to cope after finding herself single after 40 years of marriage; her ex husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), clinging to his youth by working out and pursuing younger women; their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), who is frustrated at having put her life plan on hold to indulge one-hit wonder Roy (Josh Brolin) in his literary career; and there are a host of minor characters with problems of their own. The casting is a director's dream, the sets and costumes are impeccable, and the comedy is deceptively light.

Though it opens with Helena's visit to a psychic (the ever-wonderful Pauline Collins), whom none of the other major characters takes seriously, the film has a panoply of further illusions and coping mechanisms to explore before its story is over. On the surface of it, Helena may be being exploited, but as she shrewdly points out, it costs her less than going to see a psychiatrist, that traditional Allen mainstay. Curiously, there is no place at all for God in this story; he seems to have been wholly gazumped by new age beliefs, as if the director wanted to try his hand at painting in new colours after a prolonged blue period.

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Probably more dangerous to Helena's health than her new-found spirituality is her fondness for 'a little something to sip', but at least that doesn't threaten to destroy her financially like Alfie's new marriage to twentysomething 'actress' Charmaine (Lucy Punch). On the other hand, even as the problems inherent in this grow more stark, there is a hint that Alfie has made a conscious choice to delude himself and that this may, in the end, be more comfortable than reality.

Despite its playfulness, its sometimes crudely drawn characters and its comic approach, there's a lot of darkness in this story, as self-centered characters exploit those around them. Roy has clearly deluded himself for years with the notion of his own brilliant future, something he waits for as Helena waits for the psychic's predictions to come true, doing nothing to make it happen. In the meantime, he's eyeing up attractive neighbour Dia (Freida Pinto) with little regard to the consequences this could have on her life. With the passion gone between them, Sally fantasises about her boss (Antonio Banderas) and makes plans to set up her own business which are grounded yet built around a strong sense of entitlement. Each character faces challenges to their beliefs as well as to other aspects of their lives. These could provide opportunities to grow, but are any of them really willing to face that?

With its older man/younger woman plot and its struggling writer, this might also be seen in the context of Allen examining his own illusions - through the illusionary medium of cinema, of course. Arguably there is not much to be said here that he hasn't said before, and as he becomes less sympathetic to these themes his writing loses some of the subtlety that once made them so compelling to audiences.

This is far from vintage Allen, yet it's still a cut above most similar dramatic work. One or two cheesy plotlines can be overlooked because they're enmeshed in so many intriguing layers of symbolism, whilst the impressive yet low key acting is a joy to watch. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger may not be everything you'd hope for from an Allen film, but it still offers a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2011
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Moving through difficult life changes, a group of people discover that illusions can be as significant as reality.
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Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Pauline Collins, Anna Friel

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, Spain

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