Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.
The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.
Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.
There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.
This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.
A movie about the sexual killing of pre-pubescent children that has Dane DeHaan as the ice-cream man but that doesn’t end the way you’d expect it to. Another film that paints a dark picture of a rural America wading in poverty, ignorance, corruption; of a society that lacking justice in this world seeks it in another, sometimes through Jesus and sometimes through witchcraft.
This America that we see is depicted for us by a Canadian, a director famous for keeping things cool, distant, objective, complicated; one who likes to take it slow and doesn’t feel the need to take the audience with him; even when a town is willing to sacrifice three innocent teenagers as revenge for the murder of three innocent children. We see events in different mediums but the aim is to complicate rather than clarify. The focus is on self-expression rather than communication; maybe the director doesn’t trust the audience, maybe he simply hasn’t given any thought to it. Too bad for us.
Any film that needs a whole set of title cards at the end to wrap up the film can’t be said to work and I find the story-telling weak. However, Egoyan knows how to set a mood, one that starts under a river in a forest and ends up troublingly lodged in one’s psyche. The shots are often in shallow focus so that only one thing is clear at a time; and the camera sometimes wonders to the side of the action and sometimes outside of it completely, indicating that there are other answers to be sought.
Reese Whitherspoon gives another tart performance as a rural working class Mom, a multi-faceted one where hardness and anguish and need and love get even more muddled up with a need for justice. The moment where she dares her husband to hit her or when her arms seem to take up a life of their own and reach out for the nearest child as an evocation of the loss of her own, are moments worth treasuring: they show us a great actress giving her all and back to her peak.
Devil’s Knot also has other attractions: Stephen Moyer from True Blood is the lawyer working for the State; Bruce Greenwood clearly indicates that his Judge David Burnett has another agenda, Colin Firth is a very trim private investigator trying and failing to solve the case. It’s a film based on a true story, of great interest and many attractions. The pleasures, however, are few.