The great Woody Allen continues his European filmmaking period with this latest offering set primarily in France’s Côte d’Azur. It’s the roaring 20s – a time when public interest in magic and the occult is at its zenith.
Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a brilliant magician who peddles his trade all over the globe performing as ‘Wei Ling Soo’ – a disguise which, incidentally, makes Firth a dead ringer for Gary Glitter (make of that what you will).
We find Stanley in Berlin where after a show he is propositioned by his friend and fellow magician Howard (McBurney) to join him on an excursion to the French Riviera where a young girl (Stone), who has an astounding ability to read minds and commune with the dead, is the talk of the town.
Howard believes she’s a fraud – albeit an excellent one – and that only Stanley can expose her. Stanley, an avid atheist and Neitzche enthusiast, is unable to resist the offer. Of course, it doesn’t take long before he’s questioning his convictions.
Firth isn’t quite convincing in the lead as he aims for a comedic soft spot between a high society academic determined to debunk popular myths and a loveable grump at odds with the era.
He ends up missing the mark by overplaying the stiff Brit stereotype and coming off as a curmudgeonly snob.
This proves to be the film’s downfall as his romance with Sophie, the young clairvoyant, seems highly improbable.
That Sophie might pity Stanley’s awkward attempts to assert his superior experience above her obvious natural ability, and perhaps even be charmed by his recollections of childhood wonder, is credible – but the character, at least as it is played by Firth, is far too brittle and staid for her to become romantically interested.
it doesn’t help that Firth, now in his mid-50s, looks to be edging past his romantic sell-by-date, particularly in the company of Stone – 30 years his junior – who radiates youthful energy.
Even with the age differences and Stanley’s unappealing character traits, it is still conceivable that, had the leads been cast differently, the resulting film would have been more satisfying.
In order to sell Firth and Stone’s romance more persuasively, Firth’s counterpoint is a foppish youth who, with more money than charm, serenades Stone with his out-of-tune ukulele at every given opportunity. Here Allen is saying: “Look at what the alternative is.”
Diamond in the rough
This is a reliable narrative device and it works perfectly well here – except that it undermines the integrity of Allen’s world-building.
Nevertheless, Stone provides the best and, apart from solid support from Simon McBurney, only real reason to see the film.
She’s a hugely promising actress that, in an industry of technically perfect practitioners like Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts, brings a welcome gravitas that feels unlearned to every role she plays.
See you next year
it’s precisely this quality that endears us to her here – they very quality Firth lacks. A Woody film is an annual event, so hits and misses are to be expected.
Magic In The Moonlight is not among his worst work – it might even have been saved by the casting – but after the promise of Blue Jasmine, the whole venture feels disappointingly slight. Roll on next year.
Magic in the Moonlight
Dir: Woody Allen; US comedy/drama, 2014, 97 mins
Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney
Premiered 14 August