Game, set, ‘Match Point’

“Match Point”BBC FilmsDirected and written by Woody AllenStarring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton and James Nesbitt Rated R/124 minutesOpens Jan. 20, 2006Four out of four stars

The term “Woody Allen film” typically brings to mind an immediate familiarity. For some, it’s his screwball parodies from the early 1970s. For others, it’s his Oscar-winning dramedies, such as “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” And for most of us, it conjures thoughts of high-strung neurotics, infidelity, rampant insecurity and self-absorption, all preserved under the dusky Manhattan skyline.

Well, everyone, prepare to meet a new Woody Allen.

His new film, “Match Point,” is a pronounced departure from the typical norm. Not only has he abandoned his beloved New York City for London locales, but also he’s adopted a distinctly new stylistic approach. While thematically similar to his 1989 masterpiece, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point” is a completely different film-a bold and brilliant one that has a freshness unseen from Allen since the ’90s.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays former tennis pro Chris Wilton, who proudly lives by the mantra, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Indeed, luck seems to come his way as he moves to London, meets and eventually marries a sweet, charming and rich British lass, Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and gets a high-paying job at one of her father’s (Brian Cox) companies. Basically, he’s got it all.

But then there’s the matter of his ongoing affair with the sultry femme fatale, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), his soon-to-be sister-in-law, who is engaged to Chloe’s brother, Tom (Matthew Goode). Even before the affair begins, the sexual undertones hang thickly between Nola and Chris.

In one of their early encounters, Chris uses a couple of blatant come-ons that may sound downright ridiculous-and then we see the placid confidence in Chris’ face and voice, and we realize that this is a man who thinks he can get away with anything-damn the consequences.

Or are there consequences? Or will there ever be? The film is fascinating in the way it examines these questions. As passions escalate and the stakes are raised, Allen ratchets up the tension and the plot turns in increasingly surprising ways.

Rhys-Meyers plays the character with unflappable cool as Chris’s actions become more and more suspect. In fact, the acting across the board is first-rate, in particular the supporting roles by Goode, as the likeably pretentious upper-class yuppie, and Mortimer, as Chris’ sweet-but-subtly-manipulative wife.

Woody Allen has said that leaving the overly familiar surroundings of Manhattan in favor of these lush British locations has given him new inspiration. It shows. Allen aficionados like me will be able to recognize his presence behind the scenes. But at the same time, it’s obvious that he has gone in a new and daring direction, and with “Match Point,” he has crafted a thrilling exercise in deception and moral ambiguity.

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