The West

Firth creates magic with Woody

Magic in the Moonlight (PG)
3.5 stars
Colin Firth, Emma Stone

If Woody Allen had filmed his latest bonbon in black and white, as he's done on several other occasions (Manhattan, Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo) it might be mistaken for a movie that was actually made during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Its main setting is a sumptuous spread on the Riviera, characters linger in drawing rooms and gardens engaged in witty exchanges, lovers speed along winding cliff-side roads overlooking the Mediterranean and Colin Firth plays a magician who dresses up as a Chinaman, replete with stringy moustache and pulled-back eyes.

Of course, we have seen all this tongue-in-cheek nostalgia before in Allen movies. But Magic in the Moonlight feels the most insistently old-fashioned work in memory, so much so it doesn't take too much imagination to see Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles (it's the closest he has come to making a screwball comedy).

What Magic in the Moonlight lacks in originality - some have complained it's so familiar as to be redundant, right down to the Allen obsession with death and the meaningless of existence - it makes up for in polish, wit, a lightness of touch and, most of all, exuberant, nicely judged performances.

Where once Allen's male stars did a pale imitation of himself, more recent stand-ins are their own men, with Firth throwing off his signature stammering Englishmen to play an acid- tongued egotist and world-class misanthrope who both infuriates and charms with his every biting putdown ("Autographs are for morons," Firth's magician Stanley Crawford tells a fan of his on-stage alter-ego Wei Ling Soo).

Stanley is so disparaging of mankind's need for belief in the afterlife that he has a lucrative sideline exposing mediums as frauds, using his knowledge of chicanery to save the weak- minded from being fleeced (Harry Houdini also moonlighted as a debunker of mystics).

When Stanley is approached by an old friend to unmask a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has entranced a wealthy American widow living in the South of France by claiming to be able to communicate with her late husband, he is there in a flash, his mental tools sharpened and at the ready.

However, Sophie is no pushover. She quickly sees through Stanley's guise and eventually plucks from the air his deepest secrets - Stone has fun mimicking the melodramatic arm-waving antics of movie mediums - shaking his firm believe that nothing exists beyond the grave.

Indeed, Sophie unlocks him from the prison of his own cynicism, releasing him to more fully embrace the here and now, which he claims is the only reality we know. Of course, love blossoms in this F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish playground for the rich and famous, or something like it, as Sophie's big smile and vivacity causes Stanley to question his relationship to his more eminently suitable fiance.

It could be claimed that Firth is too old for Stone (and that Allen is revealing his own dubious fixations) but they are lovely together.

Indeed, the mismatch in ages actually feels right for the period when such disparities were commonplace.

Why it works is that Firth's Stanley, who has the repressed, cerebral manner of Cary Grant's priggish paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, barely notices the attractiveness of Sophie, regarding her as a lower-class annoyance (he also has a little of Pygmalion's Henry Higgins about him). His late-movie acknowledgement of her charms is sweet and funny.

Unfortunately, Allen doesn't give Stone as much good material as Firth, who tucks the picture into his pocket and runs away with it, which is unusual because Allen is the pre-eminent American creator of great roles for women (just ask Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett).

A little more anarchic energy from Stone, a bit more screwball- ish chaos, would have added extra sparkle to Magic in the Moonlight and brought it up to the level of top-drawer Woody Allen.

But even as his engine is set to idle between more ambitious works Allen has a deftness of touch that puts him ahead of most of his young contemporaries (all except Grand Budapest Hotels' Wes Anderson, who is now the king of lovingly goofy nostalgia).

The West Australian

Popular videos