Game, set, 'Match Point'

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday January 2, 2006
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Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton in <i>Match Point. </i>Photo: Clive Coote
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton in Match Point. Photo: Clive Coote

"So tell me, what's a beautiful young American ping-pong player doing mingling amongst the British upper-class?"

"Did anyone ever tell you, you play a very aggressive game?"

In Match Point, arguably the best Woody Allen film in a decade, a struggling young Irish tennis pro discovers just how aggressive his game can be when faced with losing everything he's ever dreamed of because of a lust-fueled indiscretion.

In the film's first act, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has abandoned a once-promising professional career in order to scrape by giving tips to snobby London 20somethings. One day at a posh club, Chris meets playboy heir Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett) and his frisky blonde American fiancé, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Chris and Matthew develop a brotherly bond while Chris and Nola figuratively douse each other with kerosene, their eyes asking who's brought the matches. Since Chris needs a good reason for seeing both Matthew and Nola, it's very convenient that Matthew has an eligible sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), with whom he can have a nice, respectable affair.

It turns out that marrying off Chloe has been a not-so-secret ambition of parents Alex (Brian Cox) and Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), and as soon as Chris shows up, they shower him with the keys to their kingdom. Pretty soon, Chris' ambivalent feelings for the vulnerable Chloe have been mortgaged to the hilt, complete with a job in the family firm, a pricey condo overlooking the swinging London waterfront — everything but a seat in the House of Lords. So when Chris uses a rainy weekend at the family estate to put the blocks to Nola — a sloppy rutting in a pasture that is one of the most erotically charged moments in the Woody canon — we know somebody is about to get hurt.

In Woody's last serious dip into homicide, the philosophical comedy Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), a wealthy eye doctor (Martin Landau) hired his Mafia-connected brother to have his suddenly inconvenient mistress done away with. In Match Point, it's clear that Chris will have to do his own killing. It's a tribute to Woody's writing (this time stripped of his usual comic musings) and to a performance by Rhys Meyers that carefully fudges the line between nice manners and a talent for self-serving behavior, that we find ourselves rooting for truly bad behavior. It's like Tom Ripley suddenly trapped inside a Noel Coward drawing room.

Rhys Meyers' choir-boy facade may seem an unlikely hiding place for feral passions, but ever since his expulsion from high school at age 16 put him on a pool-hall education track, this androgynously lovely boy from Cork has compiled a gallery of bullies, assassins, sexually ambiguous glam-rockers and horror-film villains. What he's lacked so far has been a star vehicle.

Match Point is distinguished from the equally accomplished Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody's insistence on paring the philosophical baggage down to a single sentence uttered by Chris early in the proceedings: "The man who said, 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life." Woody avoids both the whiny, comic grousing of the characters he normally plays, as well as the overly gloomy, pseudo-Bergman pessimism of ponderous dramas like Interiors. Match Point kicks off with a light air that permits it the freedom to constantly surprise, delight and, by the end, ambush us with the spectacle of a desperately complicated man delivering a self-serving, sobbing confession to a male audience who should see right through him.

A glorious ride, with touches of Hitchcock, Patricia Highsmith and Woody Allen sprinkled through a film whose panoramic views of contemporary London are the next-best thing to a budget-weekend escape flight.