I’ve just seen this movie at NOVA (yes, I’ll give them a plug for Melbournians). In Australia, we are very fortunate in that we have art-house multiplexes, as well as commercial ones. Not all movies are made for teenagers (in particular teenage boys): there are lots of good movies from all over the world made with adults in mind. And Melbourne art-house cinemas are evidence that there is an audience for them, at least in Melbourne. Does that make me a cultural snob? Probably.
About 15 years ago, I was working on an engineering project in the ‘bush’, in north-east Victoria, living in Benalla, which is about 2.5 hrs from Melbourne. About 10 minutes outside of Benalla was a ’one-horse’ town called Swanpool – one of those towns you’d miss if you blinked – I don’t even think it had a pub. But it had a public hall that some locals had converted into a cinema. The seats were cheap and you came rugged up (Benalla is frosty in winter) and brought your own coffee mug to get a cheaper cup of coffee. The point of this little sojourn is that on Saturday nights they screened blockbusters but on Friday nights they screened art-house movies (usually foreign). I saw the Cuban film about homosexuality, Strawberry and Chocolate and the French surrealist film, The City of Lost Children, amongst many others. I remember sending an email to an ex-pat friend living in California that art-house cinema was alive and well in country Victoria.
Woody Allen is going through a European phase, and Magic in the Moonlight is no exception, set on the Cote d’Azur in France. Amongst his more recent films, I think To Rome With Love failed to hit the mark, but Midnight in Paris was a work of genius. I also enjoyed You’ll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, even though it didn’t get good reviews; I liked it for Allen’s ability to put up a mirror to our humanly flaws, and loved it for the Faustian twist in its tail.
Which brings me to Magic in the Moonlight, starring British acting icon, Colin Firth. It’s masterly economical in the way Allen leads us through the narrative, referencing the next scene in its predecessor, so that the story flows without any intellectual or logical hurdles to deal with. And yes, it’s predictable but we don’t know how it will be resolved, so that sort of predictability is welcome, especially when the resolution is both logical and a surprise, as it is in this film. The resolution of the romantic dimension is less a surprise but it’s treated in an unusual and humourous fashion.
But the reason I’m writing about this particular Allen film is because it has a philosophical dimension. Colin Firth’s character, ‘Stanley Crawford’, is a sceptic in the tradition of James Randi, and he meets his match in ‘Sophie Baker’ (Emma Stone), an American ‘psychic’, and the rest I won’t tell you. In fact, I haven’t told you any more than you can deduce from the trailer. The point is that Allen plays with his audience, knowing they will take sides in this philosophical-oriented debate: is there something beyond the world we can see? In effect, he tackles the divide between the hard-nosed scientists and empiricist philosophers and the romantic idealists who believe or like to believe that life holds more meaning than the short span of our years.