Match Point

dir. Woody Allen, 2005

Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is standing in a business suit next Nola (Scarlett Johansson) who's in a white tennis dress. She holds a lit cigarette in her left hand.
Image credit: DreamWorks

The pseudo-philosophical playbook of Woody Allen’s Match Point dictates that life’s transformative successes hinge on chance. Whether one’s ball makes it over the net, so to speak, or bounces defeatedly back at the player. It’s a lesson that reiterates the bitter mantra of the middle and hard-working classes: when keeping score, it’s not what, but who, you know that counts. A world in which one might ‘rather be lucky than good’, and where perching tentatively on the right stoops can twist the handles of rewarding and lucrative doors. Even if this is indeed so, admirers queuing on the once sought-after Allen’s porch have long since found other, more worthwhile entryways to clamour outside. But, for the sake of this exercise, that is beside the (match) point.

The above tennis metaphor is the apt rule of play for this story. The players: another set of affable husbands and wives who—seemingly out of sheer boredom—fall haplessly into each others’ beds. It’s a sturdy and reliable Allen set-up that allows for the typical scrutinising of the formation and disintegration of relationships; the distinction between love and lust, and whether it’s worth relinquishing ambition for true passion. On the side, we receive an outsider’s view of Europe, British society and the supposedly coveted upper class; with glamour and manipulation lifted from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Unfaithful and Cruel Intentions. It’s also a revisitation of themes from his 1989 release Crimes and Misdemeanors. Once again, brutish designs are drawn together whilst worshipping at the altar of wealth and status—the access to which becomes clouded by a fatal attraction to other people’s other halves. Allen sets out to convey the seductive immorality of Highsmith combined with the sensuality of a late 80s erotic thriller. Notwithstanding clunky exposition, misjudged British colloquialisms and the occasional blundering of a heavy-hand, in this regard, he succeeds.

Match Point sees Allen transposing his typical New York romance-drama to London. A British setting may have more to say about the embedded minutiae of class structure in contemporary society. To its credit, seen through American eyes, Match Point understands the unspoken weight of English social division well enough. Here, malintent is delivered through the slightest of gestures and benign utterances. It’s an ice-cold step into formalism for Allen, forgoing his usual wit and charm—but, for the purpose of a crime thriller, it works. (Fellow stately-home-mystery director Emerald Fennell would do well to take notes on subtlety and sleight of hand in dishing out modern takes on the subject.)

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers trades boots for a tennis racket to star as Chris Wilton, a skint Irishman trying to make good in London. A once seeded player turned instructor, he positions himself at an ideal vantage point to collide with wealthy clients at a country club. He crosses paths with Tom Hewitt (Stoker’s Matthew Goode), an heir to a business fortune. The millennial successor to Tom Ripley, Chris swiftly ingratiates himself with the Hewett family in order to secure his place on the social ladder.

Like Ripley, Chris does some studying. He brushes up on Dostoevsky and brings it out to reel in potential parents-in-law Alec and Eleanor Hewitt (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton). Rather than jazz, it’s opera that ratifies the bond between Chris and Tom. As is oft-told, an appreciation of the arts lays down the slippery bridge that allows for class mobility. Chris’ limited access to wealth is irrelevant, his aspirations against modest circumstances: admirable. If he can mime along to ‘La bloody Traviata’, then he could be ‘groomed’ to be one of them. Tom’s sister, Emily Mortimer’s well-meaning but guileless Chloë, is immediately lured in by Chris’ struggle. Sensing her enamoration, he woos her effortlessly. In the business of getting ahead, it seems, Chris has his game, set and match.

It’s a relief to witness a Woody Allen leading man who isn’t doing his most earnest impression of the director. Even so, comparisons can be made with Michael Caine’s neurotic slash lovesick Elliot in the earlier feature Hannah and Her Sisters. Similarly, Chris finds himself love-stricken with a taken woman: Tom’s fiancée, sultry out-of-work actor Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). An American divorcée in the manner of Wallis Simpson, Nola fails to win the approval of the stuck-up Hewitts. Indeed, while Chris plays tennis with ease, Nola dabbles with ping-pong and resides on the losing side of the social ‘net’. Despite having already gained an ‘in’ with Chloë, however, Chris’ next move is to seduce Nola. It’s an inexplicable play that could render his final hand overdrawn, but he cannot resist pulling another card from the deck.

It is on this essential, but tiresome, (male) conflict that Match Point rests: does our hero choose wealth, standing and security tethered to a lukewarm coupling, or sacrifice it all for a less fortunate woman who tempts him via her sirenesque, sexual magnetism? Without delving into twists (of which there are a predictable few), it’s a big ask to sympathise with such a boyish predicament, or the ludicrous final act it unfurls. Still, Match Point is sharper around the edges than Allen’s previous catalogue. It’s a cool and hollow piece, emptied of heart, but perhaps more faithful to life for it. Allen remains skilled in eliciting interest in moneyed mundanity, offering a slice of the everyday that is oftentimes more appealing than that itself. Above all, it’s a chilling demonstration of fate as amoral, surrendering to the notion that the universe has ‘no purpose, no design’—a thesis carelessly misapplied to enable the chaos of its main character’s selfish dealings and conveniently sideline his culpability for them. This isn’t to say that justice is imperative to satisfying closure. However, a work that invokes metaphysics to unpick the motives behind immorality, but seems disinterested in the impact of its outcomes, merits scrutiny.

The disappointment lingering post- Match is that despite a keen focus on interiors: country estates, flats, offices and galleries—notably an incidental shoehorning in of the South Bank’s Tate Modern—its shortfall lies in an absence of interiority. Offered is a picturesque, one-sided view of prismatic London that, while accurate in its reflection of a cushy pedigree of privileged living, resists critiquing its shallow trappings. Match Point condones the use of wealth as a buffer against accountability. Its characters’ motivations are murky, their emotional leanings unclear, because the script offers nothing biting for its cast to chew on. We hardly buy into the specificities of its characters’ affections; attraction to Chloë or Nola based merely on the kinds of lives each represents to its male protagonist—women (once again) reduced to types. And, although held captive by greed in a moral vacuum, Rhys-Meyers’ Chris is the emptiest shell, tedious in his indecision and indifference towards all but assets attained. Rarely does the film seek to offset its casual infidelity and gloomy cynicism through satire which (forgive me) could be the entire Point. The meaningful takeaway is that the hand one is dealt early on in life does not have final word on the state of play. But, for Woody Allen, it has become a sport of one director trying to cling onto his racket and serve with it, too.