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Magic In The Moonlight – Review
September 15, 2014
Woody Allen is surely the most confident and relaxed filmmaker working today. The prolific output and light touch of his recent cinematic Grand Tour puts him in an enviable position, but perhaps one that’s growing a little too comfortable. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and now a little taste of Magic in the Moonlight – together they form a languorous pleasure trip around the continent, full of light laughs and picture postcard settings. What they don’t have is the bite, energy or wit of any of Allen’s classics.
Magic in the Moonlight is probably the most laidback of the lot, but its gentle pace hides a deceptive surety of purpose. You don’t get to 73 writing credits and 16 Academy Award nominations without learning a thing or two about how to tell a good story. Allen wastes no time with establishing a complex backstory or intricate subplots. He is interested in nothing more than telling this tale, and telling it well.
It’s a simple, almost anecdotal set-up, beginning with the kind of performance that could be found only at the stuttering first steps of the twentieth century or Britain’s Got Talent. Stanley (Colin Firth) is a blunt and rational magician performing under the alias of Wei Ling Soo, a thankfully restrained caricature of Eastern mystique. He is recruited by close friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) to debunk the fraudulent Sophie (Emma Stone), a wide-eyed American he suspects of swindling money from some acquaintances on the French Riviera.
As you’d expect from latter-day Allen (or let’s be honest, any Allen), Magic in the Moonlight looks stunning. Frequent collaborator Darius Khondji’s cinematography is glorious, drowning Sophie in an ecstasy of golden pastel sunlight. This heavenly glow certainly gives her the aura of magic and mystique and it’s easy to believe that she could dupe so many looking like that. She is however, far more than just a pretty face, and her relationship with Stanley plays out with much more complexity and subtlety than the initial trailers suggested. It’s no inevitable romance, but a fascinating battle of wills: stubbornness and hope colliding in a playfully tender rivalry.
Firth is excellent too, with the familiar self-involved rambling of Allen’s syntax sparking beautifully off his dry wit, creating a performance vaguely reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’s recent turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel. One stunning scene with his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) is a real joy to watch as he irritably battles his own zealous preconceptions of Sophie and she sweetly guides him in circles until he comes to a major realisation.
Sadly it’s the kind of sharp writing that’s missing from so much of the film, and it’s here that Magic in the Moonlight becomes hard to judge. Many scenes are painfully full of exposition so lazy you can only believe that Allen handed in the wrong draft to his producers, but somehow this glaring problem feels insignificant. There’s almost a sweetness to how stagey and simple it all feels, like trying to have a conversation with your grandparents about anything more complex than how many sugars they’d like in their tea.
Is this generous judgment based, subconsciously if nothing else, on the decades of goodwill Allen has in reserve? At this point, I really couldn’t tell you. What I do know is that beneath the surface dumb show, he teases out some fascinating philosophical battles that have a surprising power. Take Sophie’s belief in magic (God) versus Stanley’s rationality, which quickly becomes more about the principle than exposing or wooing Sophie. This combination of high subject matter and light tone is a potent one and it creates a beguiling hint of melancholy throughout the film.
Even at a slender 98 minutes, Magic in the Moonlight could do with losing a good few scenes of exposition, so really it’s a marvel how much Allen has packed into his latest gem. Thanks to tight editing and an unsentimental economy of plot, there is room to breathe and explore the nuances of Sophie and Stanley’s fascinating relationship. Like a great magic show, Magic in the Moonlight is full of surface beauty and easy charm, but if you look beyond you’ll find a powerful depth and intricacy that offers so much more than at first glance.
Magic In The Moonlight is out in UK cinemas on September 19th