The contentious Woody Allen’s latest film continues his love affair with the past. His style has always suggested a bygone era, and in Magic in the Moonlight he returns to territory he explored in his 2011 film, Midnight in Paris. Magic in the Moonlight sees Stanley Crawford, a magician who performs under the Orientalist moniker of Wei Ling Su, asked by his friend Howard to help debunk a young American, Sophie, who claims to have psychic powers. What follows is a tale of luxury in the south of France, a story of love and shrewishness, and a meditation on the battle between the spiritualistic and the scientific.
The retro comic setup pays off very well for the audience as the actors manage to look impeccably suited to their respective characters. Colin Firth, as the pretentious and vain Crawford, breaks from the usual Woody Allen shtick of the insecure but loveable dork and gives Allen new avenues of emotional growth to explore. Emma Stone plays the charming and tricky Sophie with a green-around-the-edges wit that first comes off as hooey but slowly grows on the viewer. Eileen Atkins takes a break from Shakespeare to play Firth’s Aunt Vanessa—a lovely eccentric maiden aunt I wish we could have seen more of. Marcia Gay Harden makes an appearance as Sophie’s mother, who is trying to convince an old widow (played by Jacki Weaver) to build a foundation for the study of scientific activity. And while the characters drop into a Berlin Cabaret, German chanteuse Ute Lemper makes a small but adorable cameo.
The film breaks from the usual kind of comedies that you’d expect to see in the summer movie season and presents instead a much more subtle comedy. The jokes are punchy and biting, with the dryness of a good martini. For a film about performance and magic, the film’s showmanship and glamour are understated. The costumes and sets have a more authentic feel than many other films set in this time period. The music consists of Allen’s classic collection of jazz recordings—some famous, some obscure—which pepper the film with an easy elegance.
There is little doubt that opinions on the film will be overshadowed in some quarters by opinions of the director’s personal life, particularly the resurgence in allegations made by his ex-partner, Mia Farrow, as well as the suggestion that his son Ronan might actually have been fathered by Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow’s ex-husband. I think that it’s safe to say that no matter what one might think of his private life, the films he has made can stand separate from him: the characters he creates are their own beings which have become so ingrained in the cinema culture that the ‘Woody Allen character’ pops up in all kinds of other films. A work is capable of standing apart from its creator.
At the end of the day, Magic in the Moonlight is a wonderful example of old-school film-making – a nostalgic look at the past faded around the edges. There is enough to take seriously here, just as there is enough to take lightly. Allen delivers a special kind of comedy that shows him in top form.