Watch Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" on DVD and I bet you'll be pleasantly shocked. It came and went quickly in Baltimore and received little attention either from critics or award groups. Yet it's one of Allen's most enjoyable recent films.
As staged by Allen and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, it's worth seeing simply to savor the moviemaking. With subtle, intricate takes, they make the intimate comedy-drama lucid and compelling -- and they make London as crisp yet lived-in and inviting as Allen and Gordon Willis made Manhattan in "Annie Hall."
Gemma Jones and Anthony Hopkins play an upper-crust couple who split when he decides she's growing too old too fast for him; Naomi Watts plays their daughter, unhappily married to a struggling novelist (Josh Brolin); and Antonio Banderas plays her boss, a married gallery-owner who flirts with her in the classiest ways.
Brolin needs a course correction: as in "True Grit," he's too blustery. Everyone else is splendid. That includes Lucy Punch, both persuasive and hilarious as a call girl who becomes the father's new wife, and Frieda Pinto (of "Slumdog Millionaire"), both touching and seductive as an engaged musician who becomes the novelist's obsession and (he says) his muse. This is not the kind of comedy in which a muse or a medium fosters any kind of magical transformation; Pauline Collins is terrifically shrewd, not otherworldly, as a mercenary, manipulative fortune teller.
There is magic here, though, in the way that Allen keeps an audience engaged even when the action turns painful or mordant. You know where some of the characters are going. You're never sure of how they're going to get there -- and how happy they'll be when they arrive. I think Allen threw off his critics when he had his narrator (Zak Orth) frame the tale by quoting Shakespeare's "Macbeth" about life as "a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing." The key quotation is the William Carlos Williams poem that the novelist, in flashback, uses to woo his wife: "so much/ depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens."
In "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," so much depends, for example, upon Pinto dressed in red and seen through a shimmery cloudburst. Later, it's funny when the superbly suave Banderas describes as "beautiful" and "ironic" a turn of amorous events that's humiliating and heartbreaking for his right-hand gal, Watts.
But Allen's vision is genuine. He wrings poignancy and irony and even, once or twice, a fleeting beauty from his characters' familiar, futile romantic illusions.