Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney
For some, atheism is a source of comfort, providing reassurance that we are all in control of our own fates. For others, the idea that existence is essentially meaningless is a crushing thought. In Magic in the Moonlight, Colin Firth plays Stanley, a magician who belongs in the latter camp. Under the guise of Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, he's one of 1920s Europe's most acclaimed stage acts, while performing a sideline in debunking charlatans, much like today's Penn Gillette or Derren Brown.
When he is called to the South of France to expose Sophie (Stone), a young American psychic who has wormed her way into a high society family, Stanley finds himself baffled by her trickery, as she seems privy to information she couldn't possibly have acquired by non-spiritual means. Stanley finds himself falling for the target of his skepticism, while also beginning to believe she may possess a genuine supernatural gift, which leads him to ponder if there may even be a God.
After a highly successful return to the US with last year's Blue Jasmine (albeit San Francisco rather than his home turf of New York), Woody Allen is back in Europe with this South of France set and lensed comedy. A criticism levelled at his previous European films is that he seemed so overwhelmed by the locations that the resulting stories played like expensive travelogues. That's far from the case here, as despite its Gallic location, Magic in the Moonlight could just as well be set in upstate New York. France is the backdrop here out of financial necessity, and the film doesn't feature one French performer or character.
For the first time since Melinda & Melinda / Anything Else a decade ago, Allen has delivered back to back gems, and Magic in the Moonlight could be the best of his non-US movies. A lifelong fan of illusions, Allen's latest film is a piece of trickery in itself, deceiving the audience through the age-old magician's trick of forcing us to look in the wrong place while the trickery occurs off-stage, or in this case, off-screen. I won't go into details, so as not to ruin the illusion, so to speak; suffice to say Allen's film is an old-fashioned piece of simple, economical storytelling, beguiling, like the best card tricks, despite its simplicity.
While tourist hubs are avoided, Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji exploit the unique light afforded them by their location, delivering arguably the director's most visually appealing film this century. The ensemble cast is great, with Firth stealing the show with a performance reminiscent of Alvy Singer and Basil Fawlty trapped in the one body. A scene where Stanley finds himself appealing to a higher power for the first time in his life provides the actor a chance to give us a rare glimpse into how commanding a screen presence he can be, and washes away the sour taste left by his campy hijinks in the over-rated The King's Speech.
When it comes to the magic of cinema, it seems Allen still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
By Eric Hillis