DVD Release Date:  May 27, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  January 18, 2007 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexual material and brief violence)
Genre:  Murder Mystery
Run Time:  108 min.
Director:  Woody Allen
Actors:  Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, Tom Wilkinson, John Benfield, Clare Higgins, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins

London has been good to Woody Allen. Cassandra’s Dream, the third film in Allen’s London-based trilogy, rivals his earlier moral drama, Match Point, while exceeding that film’s technical craft and giving Colin Farrell the role of his career.

Brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) are both frustrated dreamers. Ian works for his father (John Benfield) at the family’s restaurant, but has no desire to take over the operation. Instead, he tells a new romantic interest, Angela (Hayley Atwell), that he’s invested in a couple of hotels planned for Los Angeles. With the help of his well connected Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), Ian hopes to move from London to a new life in L.A., where Angela, an actress, can pursue her career.

Terry, a mechanic with perpetually dirty fingernails, has a weakness for the dog track and the poker table. His high-stakes wins are followed by inevitable losses, and he soon finds himself deeply in debt, with loan sharks looming.

The tendency of the two brothers to live beyond their means is demonstrated by their shared purchase of a boat, “Cassandra’s Dream,” at the beginning of the film. The boat will also provide the setting for the film’s dark conclusion.

To finance their future, the brothers turn to their uncle, who has come to visit, but they are surprised when the uncle confides that he has his own desperate situation:  Someone is planning to testify against him for shady business practices, and the testimony is sure to put Howard away for years. There’s only one solution:  The associate needs to be killed.

Howard has been the family’s benefactor for years, sending cash to his sister (the brothers’ mother), who gripes about her husband’s struggles to provide for their family. The brothers, who had expected Howard’s largesse, now find the tables turned. They owe him, Howard insists. He needs them for once. Will they follow through?

No, they won’t. Their consciences won’t allow it. But after further reflection, Ian sees no other avenue to achieving his dreams, or to settling Terry’s debts. The shift in attitudes is notable. Ian is the more responsible of the two brothers, always bailing out his sibling and helping sustain the family business, while Terry is a ne’er do well on the path to destruction. Yet it is Terry, faced with no easy options to relieve his situation, who can’t abide the thought of murder, while Ian persuades him that there’s no other choice. The two men decide to carry out the murder, but with unforeseen ramifications.

Farrell, who has been hyped as a glamorous bad boy in films such as Miami Vice, Alexander, and The New World, has never come close to equaling what he does here. His character’s decisions are often foolish, but ultimately he’s tender-hearted, reluctant to follow through with the killing of Howard’s nemesis, and descending into emotional turmoil afterward. McGregor is also fine as the increasingly petulant Ian, insistent that Terry keep his mouth shut about their shared crime. When Terry shows no signs of sharing in Ian’s hardening of heart, Ian and Howard are forced to consider compounding their sin to silence Terry.

The film plays as a drama, although some in the audience at the screening I attended laughed as Howard pushed his extreme solution on the brothers. Allen himself has suggested that Cassandra’s Dream mixes elements of comedy with serious drama, without specifying where the comedy comes in. I’m not convinced that we’re supposed to laugh at any of Cassandra’s Dream, although many audience members surely share Allen’s well documented nihilistic worldview. Therefore, Wilkinson’s desperation may strike some viewers as amusing.

How one judges the merits of Cassandra’s Dream depends in part on what one thinks of the tone of the story. If there’s comedy in it, do the jokes fall flat? Are the jokes so nihilistic that they aren’t amusing? Is the movie a straight drama? Certainly the tone of the story is serious, and the actions the characters take have mortal consequences. The idea that someone threatened by someone else might decide to have that threat removed is not unheard of in real life. And although movies have sometimes used this premise to comic ends, Cassandra’s Dream feels much closer to tragedy than it ever does to comedy.

The book of Proverbs tells us, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (28:13). In the New Testament we read, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).

Terry’s words, after he’s committed the film’s central sin, show the truth of God’s revelation. “What if there’s a God?” he asks Ian. “We’re crossing the line.  We broke God’s law. … I want this off my neck. … I want the slate wiped clean.” But Ian has other ideas.

Terry can’t find a way to wipe the slate clean, and Cassandra’s Dream offers no ultimate hope for Terry to see his sin atoned for. However, Terry’s need to confess his sins is biblical and admirable. Likewise, Cassandra’s Dream is an admirable film with biblical themes, and it reveals a director and screenwriter still grappling with Judeo-Christian notions of morality. He’s had some high-profile moral failings, but Woody Allen’s latest films shows that God’s not finished with him yet.

Questions? Concerns? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@earthlink.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; profanity; a man says two attractive people have a “duty to reproduce”; discussion about whether an actress would sleep with someone to get a part.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Lots of drinking; abuse of prescription drugs; smoking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A woman in bed talks to man with a towel around his waist after they’ve had sex; an actress in a play lies in bed, coming on to a man; some kissing; the actress is said to be nude in the play and to engage in kinky sex, although these things are not shown; two people are shown having sex under the sheets; a man’s live-in girlfriend hopes to get pregnant by him.
  • Violence:  A man is shot offscreen; another murder is planned but not carried out; a brawl has fatal consequences.