Cassandra's Dream focuses on two brothers: Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell). Ian's a rather dutiful son who works at the family's floundering restaurant to help out his sick dad. He keeps multiple schemes on the side, though, for the day he gets up the nerve to quit the restaurant. Terry, on the other, doesn't seem to have any plans at all. He works as a mechanic, lives day to day, and lets his fortunes ride on how well he does at the track or the tables.
We meet the two brothers as they prepare to buy a small boat that they christen Cassandra's Dream. Not exactly a bright and cheery name but what the heck. Terry runs into a streak of good luck while Ian meets up with a beautiful actress named Angela (Haley Atwell) that he falls in love with. Things couldn't be going better but then Terry's luck changes, he amasses a large debt and the brothers get asked by their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson) to commit a murder.
Cassandra's Dream (The Weinstein Company)
Cassandra's Dream is not a bad film but it is a very familiar one if you've already seen Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Scoop , or Match Point . All three of these films, with some variation, deal with the idea of someone committing a murder and getting away or seeming to get away with it. Crimes and Misdemeanors is by far the best of the set. Not only was it the first to tackle the subject but it is the one that dealt with the morality of the issue in the most effective and provocative manner. In addition, it was a film that began as a comedy and took us by surprise when the murder occurred.
The three films that followed in this same vein come at their subject more directly and with less freshness. In fact it is now beginning to feel like Allen is obsessed with the idea and can't get it out of his system. I'm beginning to think that Allen must have committed some crime that he's gotten away with and the guilt is getting to be so oppressive that he's making these films in the hopes of getting caught. Or that he knows someone who's committed a crime and is hoping these films will prompt a confession (if the latter is true I hope that person steps forward quickly so Allen can move on to something else).
Allen's contemplation of murders, murderers and the moral repercussions of taking a life harkens back to Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky explored the mental anguish and moral musings of impoverished Russian student Raskolnikov as he contemplates and plans a murder. Allen covers similar ground as he serves up character who commit murders out of some sense of desperate self-preservation and then wait for the consequences. In the case of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point , those consequences never come. In the case of Scoop , justice is brought down on the killer. And in Cassandra's Dream , the two brothers deal with the aftermath in different ways. Ian simply wants to put it behind them while Terry suffers from almost incapacitating guilt. The final resolution does come as a surprise as it offers yet another take on the crime and punishment theme.
In some ways, I might appreciate this film more if Allen had simply told us that he was going to make a series of films all on the same theme, but with the outcome tweaked slightly in each. It could be like Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" or his "Comedies and Proverbs." Allen could have called his collection, "Six Tales of Murder and Morality." That way we would be prepared for the similarities of the films and understand that after he made these six he would move on to something else. But without that umbrella title or a conscientious attempt to group these movies together, it feels like Allen is stuck in a rut.
Tom Wilkinson plays a visiting uncle in Cassandra's Dream (The Weinstein Company)
That being said, Cassandra's Dream is still well written and performed. There's none of the humor found in Crimes and Misdemeanors or Scoop here. Cassandra's Dream, like his other London shot murder tale Match Point , is all serious drama.
Allen draws his characters well. Tom Wilkinson's visiting uncle is an especially chilling character who seems generous and supportive but at a staggering cost in the end. His actions may sometimes seem unselfish but he is a man of stunning ego. He sees nothing wrong in requesting his nephews to take out a man who's about to implicate their uncle in a scandal. As he did in Michael Clayton , Wilkinson delivers a brilliantly etched performance, full of careful nuance.
Cassandra's Dream , as with most of Allen's films, is compelling and filled with smartly written dialogue. In that respect, Allens films are always welcome because they show a sense of craft in the development of character, theme and plot. You sense that he has worked on the script rather than slapped it together as so many scripts these days seem to be.
Cassandra's Dream (rated PG-13) is better than most of what's new in theaters these days (like Cloverfield, First Sunday, Mad Money, National Treasure 2, One Missed Call, The Bucket List ). The problem is that it's not better than what Allen has done in the past covering similar ground. Allen's a bit like the honor student in school who gets downgraded because we know he can do better.
Companion viewing: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Scoop, Crime and Punishment
Listen to our Film Club discussion of Cassandra's Dream.