Allen’s latest London drama is not a "return to form" — let’s just get that disappointment out of the way. Got low expectations? Then I’ll begin. Farrell and McGregor play working class brothers Terry and Ian. Terry is well-meaning but dim; Ian is "the clever one", and dreams of moving to America and making millions like his Uncle Howard (Wilkinson).
In an implausible chance encounter, Ian meets Angela, seductress extraordinaire, whom he woos by splashing the cash and telling elaborate tales of his business plans. When Terry racks up a huge gambling debt, and Ian runs out of money to impress Angela, the brothers turn to Uncle Howard. Howard agrees to take care of them financially, but here’s where it gets interesting: he wants them to kill someone for him in return. Terry is horrified, but Ian talks him round. When the deed is done, Terry is wracked with guilt and desperate to confess; Ian, torn between his brother and Angela, must find a way to protect his future.
Although every critic will flag it up, I have to start with Cassandra’s Dream’s most glaring flaw: Farrell's attempt at a cockney accent. His struggle to maintain the same vowel sounds from the start of a sentence to its finish is a constant distraction. McGregor fares better, but still sounds like a cross between Frank Spencer and Harold Steptoe. Regardless of their acting skills, Farrell and McGregor look and sound nothing like each other, and nothing like Londoners, so from the get-go the film doesn’t ring true. As in Match Point, it’s hard to engage with the unnatural, literary dialogue. There’s a clunky party scene in which Angela discusses Greek tragedies. Somehow this sort of thing was plausible in Annie Hall etc, but transpose it to Britain and it just doesn't wash. Allen doesn’t have the easy cultural understanding of London that he has of New York — perhaps it’s time for him to head back.
In the supporting cast, Hawkins is affecting as Kate, Terry’s loyal girlfriend — but the character of Angela, played by Atwell, is a notable failure. Her sex appeal is continually thrust in both Ian's and the audience's faces, and that’s about the extent of her. Her lack of substance wouldn’t matter if the plot didn’t hang on Ian going to the most desperate of lengths to keep her. Are a pouty face and constant innuendos enough to motivate murder? Despite this mess, the plot is gripping. Allen finds new life in a theme previously explored in the wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanours and the hit-and-miss Match Point: wrongdoing, and whether we can ever get away with it. As before, he seems to conclude that we’re only really punished by ourselves — while Ian and Howard are willing to get away with murder, Terry isn’t. This is a compelling take on morality and the complications of brotherly love, and it gave me a smidgeon of reassurance: Woody Allen may never return to form, but he’s definitely still got something.
SECOND OPINION | Michael Edwards * Woody Allen, what are you doing? I know you comic types have a dark side, I've read about the sad stories of fellows like Kenneth Williams who laugh on the outside but dying on the inside, but can't you just do the dignified thing like the rest of them and keep it hidden away? Cassandra's Dream is just another predictable Greek tragedy from the once towering titan of the comedy world, and it's boring and painful to watch. Now I know tragedies are meant to be painful, but I also know that the pain should not be derived from poorly constructed dialogue and appalling London accents. I haven't heard anyone butcher an accent as comprehensively as McGregor and Farrell butcher the London accent since Brad Pitt did his hilarious "pikey" accent in Snatch. The difference is, Pitt made it funny.
The worst thing is that not only is Cassandra's Dream boring, badly acted and predictable, it's also patronising for good measure. A scene slap bang in the middle of the movie sees a bunch of actors at a party discussing what their favourite Greek tragedy is: do you need to scream it at us any more Woody? I can understand the appeal of a good tragedy, I can even cope with a bit of moralising, but watching this film is self-flagellation in such a grand scale that you might faint from the pain. Don't do it my friends, don't do it.