As Woody Allen stumbled his way into the 21st century with Small Time Crooks (2000) and The Curse of Jade Scorpion (2001), the image of an artist adrift in a new decade was cemented. As he coasted from one uninspired project to another, a great critical fallacy came to pass; Woody had lost it. Over the past fifteen years, Allen has continued to make a film a year. The quality may have veered significantly, but accepted critical wisdom has served to temper any serious discussion of the period. Taken as a whole, his recent work represents a distinct chapter in Allen’s canon in which new themes began to emerge; in particular, we see an ageing director at a crossroads between something of a golden and gilded age.
In Magic in the Moonlight (2014), a gorgeous period piece, we get a portrait of the artist as a Wildean cynic; world-weary but not yet lost to his misanthropy. Combining a peculiarly spiky brand of nostalgia with playful forms of self- critique, it’s Allen’s most nakedly personal film in quite some time. It works both as a delightful Wodehousian farce as well as an anxious dispatch from the autumn of its creator’s artistic consciousness. Set among the bohemian émigrés and exiles in the South of France of the 1920s, Magic in the Moonlight sees Colin Firth’s splendidly pompous stage magician finding himself inadvertently falling for an enigmatic young clairvoyant (Emma Stone, making her Allen debut) whom he’s trying to expose as a fraud. It’s a classic Allen set-up, albeit one refined to match the thematic palette of his later work.
Love as a metaphysical force has been curiously prevalent in Allen’s career. Indeed, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have become a key literary touchpoint. The more overt magic here is smoke and mirrors; an elaborate obstacle course for the central duo’s courtship, tantalisingly masquerading as a battle of wits. Firth and Stone are outstanding, intuitively grasping the delicate balance between the flippancy and earnestness in Allen’s lines. The ace up the film’s sleeve is cinematographer Darius Khondji. Channelling Gordon Willis’ work on A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), his sun-kissed lenses and evocative colours make the Cote d’Azur magic hour look paradisaical. What truly resonates, however, is the artistic tension that’s resting just beneath the glimmering surface and slightly outworn comedy of manners. After almost fifty films spent struggling to understand the human condition, with Magic in the Moonlight Allen comes face to face with his own misanthropy and watches as it starts to melt. It’s time we reframed the discourse around his prolific work rate; this isn’t laziness – it’s an unfettered creative impulse reaching for some kind of enlightenment through cinema.