(M) Selected (98 minutes)
''I'VE never felt truth was beauty, never,'' Woody Allen told interviewer John Lahr in 1996. It's a thought that must preoccupy Allen, given the omniscient narrator (Zak Orth) of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger makes exactly the same point: ''Truth is not beauty, as the poet said, but quite the opposite.''
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - Trailer
Woody Allen's London-set romp follows a pair of married couples, Alfie and Helena, and their daughter Sally and husband Roy, as their passions, ambitions, and anxieties lead them into trouble.
Completed in 2010, the film is only now getting a release in Australia, on the back of the success of Allen's subsequent films Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love. While the film is theoretically a light comedy, it's not one of his fluffy crowd-pleasers: in some ways it's a jauntier version of Interiors, his 1978 effort to rival Ingmar Bergman as the king of upmarket gloom.
Interiors centred on a New England decorator (Geraldine Page) deserted by her husband (E.G. Marshall), leaving their adult daughters to pick up the pieces.
Similarly, Tall Dark Stranger begins with the break-up of a long-term couple - Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy London businessman, and his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones). Their daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), works at an art gallery where she has a crush on her married boss (Antonio Banderas); her macho husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), is a frustrated novelist like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, though a much less likeable one.
Roy becomes fixated on a beautiful neighbour (Freida Pinto), visible in a window opposite his study. In the meantime, Helena seeks spiritual guidance from a fortune teller (Pauline Collins) while Alfie - played by Hopkins with uncharacteristic vulnerability - tries to regain his youth by pairing up with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), the kind of vulgar gold-digger Allen not-so-secretly adores.
The opening credits are set to When You Wish upon a Star in Leon Redbone's lovely, slurred baritone, an early indication the film is a treatment of a favourite Allen theme: fantasy trumps reality, or the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
It's also a film about loneliness: each character is led astray by a separate dream, and so, with rare exceptions, no communication can occur.
Allen's ear for dialogue has not improved over the years, and he doesn't pretend to offer more than a rich tourist's view of London. Aside from the occasional frantically choreographed long take, he has largely abandoned his ambition to be considered a visual stylist - which, thinking back to the glacial surface of Interiors, is not entirely a bad thing. The film is worth seeing mostly for its cast (though Brolin struggles with an impossible part) and as an unusually frank statement of principles.
As ever, Allen's ambivalence about fantasy is also an ambivalence about art itself. While he yearns to associate himself with prestigious names from Mozart to Ibsen, he's never been able to shake off his sense that culture is one big con game, a tool for status enhancement or seduction. Storytelling, in particular, is a form of lying, a distraction from the awful knowledge that every life ends in the same way.
Still, some hope remains for his characters - or at least for Helena, who has the daffy, exasperating strength of the true believer, recalling certain roles played by Allen's former muse, Mia Farrow. What are we supposed to make of her claim, towards the end of the film, that ''each of us leads many lives''? Perhaps she's talking about the way each Allen film confronts us with a familiar set of archetypes, shuffled into different combinations.
In any case, she seems to have the upper hand over the impatiently rational Roy, who insists that her New Age beliefs are mere delusion. No doubt in the real world he would be correct.
But this isn't the real world, this is the movies - in that enchanted realm, anything is possible.