Cassandra's Dream: Woody at Low Volume

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Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream.

Cassandra's Dream is the name of a long-shot greyhound who wins a race and makes a small fortune for an addicted gambler named Terry (Colin Farrell). It is entirely appropriate for him to give the name to the smart little sailboat he and his brother Ian (Ewan McGregor) buy with his winnings. It is also believable that these working-class lads would not know much about the lady after whom the speedy canine was named — mythology's great purveyor of doomy portents. It is, finally, appropriate for Woody Allen to find the title for his movie in this classical allusion. For the brothers are about to embark on a sea of troubles that even the Ancient Greek's grim prognosticator might have hesitated to conjure up.

One of the ideas Allen likes to keep circling back upon is the heavily ironic notion that it is perfectly possible — literally — to get away with murder, totally unpunished, in the godless and amoral modern world. It is the theme of two of his best films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, and it is a central element in this movie. Like the protagonists of those earlier films, the brothers are not inherently evil people. They're just rather careless ones. Or perhaps one should say ungrounded. Terry is hard-working mechanic, rather decent at heart, but afflicted with addictions to gambling and booze. Ian dreams of an entrepreneurial success — something to do with upscale hotels — without quite seeming to know how to achieve it. He's also smitten by an actress (Hayley Atwell) who is much better at using people than he is.

The boys continue to need money: Terry tends to lose more than he wins gambling, and Ian needs serious financing for his slightly dubious ventures. That's where Uncle Howard (the wonderful Tom Wilkinson) comes in. He's a stock figure in middle class dramas — see Death of a Salesman —] the mysteriously successful, almost mythically potent, figure who haunts the dreamy longings of his stuck-in-grade relatives. A source of whimsical largesse and equally whimsical needs, he has always required a bit of placating. Right now, he needs a bit more than that, specifically the death of a business associate who is about to testify against him in a criminal action. Who better for that job than his nephews, whose fees for murder would put them on easy street. And besides, as Uncle Howard argues, isn't blood always thicker than water?

The job turns out to be fairly simple. It's the aftermath that's hard to handle — especially for the guilt-ridden Terry. It perhaps gives nothing away to say that his reaction to what he has done takes Allen into emotional territory he has not this fully explored in his previous reflections on capital crimes. Which is not to say that Cassandra's Dream is quite the breakthrough film I think it might have been. It is a talkative film, rather earnest in its tonalities, not at all a deft, witty or well-paced. On the other hand, it is, for Allen, a comparatively rare excursion into lower-class life — the setting is London, as it has been in his two previous films — and its portrayal of the contortions upward striving can impose on people eager to move up in class is cool, well-observed and often even touching — especially in Farrell's confusions and eventual meltdown under guilty pressure. The scale of this film is right for this excellent realist, much more appropriate to his talents than the brawnier pictures Hollywood has cast him in.

I think something similar might be said about Allen. A movie like Match Point worked because, despite the seriousness of its theme, it had the sheen of glamour about it — the fabulous country house, the upscale condo in town, its general air of luxe. You might not like its people, but you couldn't help but admire their lifestyles. "I want that," an inner voice kept crying, as if it were a TV commercial sound bite. Cassandra's Dream is much more tough-minded. And much less immediately appealing. I walked out of the screening, over a month ago, admiring it, but not deeply moved. Yet the movie has stayed with me as a lot of the more heralded year-end films have not. There was a time in his career when Allen's lurches toward seriousness seemed to a lot of people unearned. He himself satirized that take on those films as early as 1980's Stardust Memories. But he's over 70 now — difficult as that is for some of us to believe — and he has fully earned the right to address us in any voice he chooses. Here its volume is turned down low. But if you lean in a bit you can hear it saying intricate and interesting things about the way class, character and morality operate in a realistically rendered milieu that is new for him and, in the context of this movie moment, quite gripping for us.