The more things change, the more Woody Allen stays the same: it’s a comfort that this singular artist’s worldview remains so staunchly his own – often archaically against fashion – and that nothing seems to halt his movie-a-year pace. The director’s latest – a lighthearted romance set in 1920s Germany and France – won’t do much to sway proponents or detractors from their own perspectives, though taken at face value, it’s one of Allen’s most charmingly conceived and performed efforts.
Our hero, Stanley (Colin Firth, amusingly pompous), is a popular stage magician and lifetime sceptic conscripted by a colleague to travel to a lush Côte d’Azur estate. His task is to debunk a self-proclaimed psychic named Sophie (Emma Stone, strong-willed and alluring), who appears to be milking a rich old widow out of every cent. Yet try as Stanley might, he’s unable to uncover her trickery, and with each new 'miracle' she performs, he falls deeper and deeper in love.
It’s a simple premise that Allen complicates with an illusionist’s expertise. If the essence of magic is a steady stream of pleasurable distraction until the mind-bending big reveal, then the sun-dappled French vistas – gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Darius Khondji – and a very able and attractive cast decked out in Jazz Age finery more than do the job. Firth and Stone’s head-butting exchanges may be the general focus, but there are plum supporting roles for Hamish Linklater as a ukulele-strumming suitor and Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s aunt, always ready with a wizened, world-weary observation.
None of this is to take away from Allen’s cleverly constructed script. It feels as if it could have been written in the heyday of Old Hollywood – a blithe lark that digs deep at the most unexpected times, as in a terrific scene in which agnostic Stanley dithers his way through a prayer. Allen’s never going to be Ernst Lubitsch, and there’s a bit of his latter-day laziness on display. (Few directors are as fond of one-and-done master shots that seem envisioned by a loafer longing for the five o’clock whistle.) Yet 'Magic in the Moonlight' still casts a lovely, lingering spell.