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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

When Dreams Go Wrong

Woody Allen’s murder-thriller

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Working in the United Kingdom was the best idea Woody Allen had in years. With his third British-made film, Cassandra’s Dream, Allen avoids all of the shtick cliches he had wrapped himself in since the ’80s. It’s a murder-thriller keyed on conflict between family loyalty and wider morality. It also asks the question: At what price the good life? Cassandra’s Dream is a movie Alfred Hitchcock might make were he alive today.

Cassandra’s Dream stars Ewan McGregor as Ian and Colin Farrell as Terry, lower-middle-class London brothers roiled by dreams they can’t begin to afford. Terry repairs autos and Ian works for their dad’s struggling restaurant; both gamble on cards, horses, dogs and the future. At Sunday dinner they hear their parents argue about beneficent Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a millionaire global entrepreneur whose largesse has kept poverty from their door. Dad sulks resentfully about the man whose measure is beyond his reach.

Mom is defiantly proud of her unaccountably successful brother. “All that you can count on in this life is family,” she says in words that foreshadow the tragedy about to befall her sons. The brothers are hard put when their uncle pays them one of his infrequent visits.

Ian has fallen in love with a gorgeous actress, Angela (Hayley Atwell), a flirtatious woman of uncertain commitment whom he desperately tries to impress, borrowing an under-repair Jaguar from Terry’s shop to maintain appearances. He is not in the league of her wealthy, educated circle and proffers tales of hotel investments in California—a scheme he hopes Uncle Howard will turn into reality. Weak and addicted to Lady Luck, Terry has gambled himself into a 90,000 pound debt to loan sharks.

Uncle understands. But he has a problem of his own and demands the brothers’ help in exchange for the money they need. A whistle-blower at the foundation he controls is about to expose corrupt practices. Howard could end his life in prison. The only solution he conceives is that Ian and Terry must find a way to kill the whistle-blower during his stopover in London. The clock is ticking.

One thing is wrong with Allen’s script: The crucial plot pivot is squeaky. Why Uncle Howard, a malevolent millionaire with wide-ranging connections, doesn’t hire professionals for the job is never given a satisfactory answer.

“Family loyalty cuts both ways,” Howard insists, tempting and cajoling the desperate brothers to cross the boundary where the legitimate demands of family descend into moral chaos. In a seemingly random encounter, the brothers even meet the man they are to kill.

He’s not a bad fellow. Plot flaw aside, Cassandra’s Dream is a fascinating character study of two brothers staring into the abyss. Terry’s troubled conscience continually threatens the scheme. He tries to beg off, struggles to draw ethical lines in the timing and manner of murder, yet his will is too weak to resist the pressure of his brother and uncle. Ian feels a feeble tug of doubt about the enterprise, but he has few values aside from his own self-interest. He glibly produces a stream of sophistry to justify the act, starting with the gratitude owed their uncle and leading through analogies to the military, which pays poor boys to kill other poor boys to benefit the rich. Life, according to Uncle Howard and Ian, is a struggle for survival with all advantages to the predators. Terry believes in God and absolute moral imperatives. Cassandra’s Dream insists that once certain lines are crossed, there is no way back again.