Match Point

Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Emily Mortimer. Rated PG.

No other director has been as closely identified with a single city as Woody Allen has with New York. Annie Hall was defined by the telltale brownstones and their signature walkup staircases, countless scenes have been set in the Big Apple's hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs, and an entire movie was named for Manhattan. Who could have predicted, then, that Allen would have to leave NYC to make one of his best works?

Match Point inhabits the snooty clubs and drawing rooms of Britain's old-money elite. By shifting his action to London, Allen proves the old adage that outsiders are the most adept at seeing a society for what it is. He manages to paint a scathing portrait of England's suffocating class system while digging ever deeper into his favourite issues of desire and regret.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris, a coldly ambitious tennis instructor who lucks his way into a wealthy family by courting its only daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Soon, the unschooled Chris is rising in Chloe's father's company, but his animal impulses put his career plans in peril: despite his wife's sweet devotion, he's drawn to the tawdrier charms of Scarlett Johansson's Nola, a struggling young American actor with a weakness for cigarettes and booze; her upper-crust Brit boyfriend dryly dubs her "a lady of the sauce".

Although set abroad, Match Point covers ground familiar from Allen's earlier films. The themes of infidelity, guilt, and justice especially mirror those in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's just that the ideas are sharper, the cast is younger, and the overall feel is a whole lot more disturbing. Where Crimes had hilarious moments of comic relief, Match Point is taut and jaded; where Crimes at least held out the hope of a moral universe, Match Point suggests we live in a state of anarchy, where luck has more sway than any god. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Allen makes no appearance, and there's barely a neurosis in sight.

Instead of taking centre stage, the veteran director is apparently busy reestablishing himself as a master at his game. In addition to looking fantastic-Wallpaper*-spread lofts, golden-lit rainstorms in the countryside-many of Match Point's scenes of deception are edited with the tension of a great film noir. Allen has also written one of his tightest, most intelligent scripts, adding just enough information to colour his characters. Watch Chris subtly acquire a taste for fine burgundy and cashmere even as he shies away from ordering the caviar on the menu. Or read the insecurities into Nola as she corrects someone who calls her beautiful: "No, what I am is sexy."

Enrich the mix with references to art, opera, and even Dostoyevsky, and you have an unforgettable film that's deeper and a lot more stinging than Allen's recent output of mediocre fare. He may have left the Big Apple, but Allen has finally returned to exciting filmmaking.