-By Jon Frosch

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When Woody Allen's gripping, gorgeously shot romantic thriller Match Point screened at Cannes last spring, critics gushed that it was unlike anything Allen had ever done. Those familiar with the director's masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors knew the buzz wasn't entirely justified. Match Point is less a startling departure from Allen's previous work than a haunting variation on the themes tackled in Crimes and Misdemeanors-adultery, moral choices, and the luck that can save us from disaster-in a wholly new context: London high society.

It's a tribute to Allen's storytelling skill, as well the novelty of the new setting, that his latest film feels as fresh as it does. The filmmaker basically exports the plot and preoccupations of the earlier movie, but creates an alluring new universe within which to play: Jewish intellectuals are replaced by Anglican aristocrats, jazz by opera, and strolls in Central Park by skeet shooting in the English countryside. At the center of it all is Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a blue-collar tennis instructor propelled into a world of privilege when he marries the wealthy Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris' suddenly sumptuous life is shaken by his attraction to another outsider, an American actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson) who's engaged to Chloe's brother (Matthew Goode).

Allen takes his time pulling us into Match Point's triangle of lust and betrayal. It's one of his longest films-over two hours-and there are passages that dawdle rather than hurtle on inevitably as they should. Yet as Chris and Nola's tug-of-war flirtation evolves into a desperate affair with one hell of a catch-22, the movie tightens its noose. Chris' dilemma seems standard at first-human passion versus material comfort-but Allen makes it blossom with unexpected ironies and insights into the amoral workings of sexual obsession and class insecurity. Nola's femme fatale brazenness partly turns out to be an image projected onto her by lust-driven suitors; she's essentially a lonely girl in over her head amidst social codes she doesn't understand. Once Chris realizes this, he's driven back towards the steadfast Chloe, who guarantees a lifestyle to which he's grown fiercely attached. Yet by refusing to portray Chloe as a shrew-Mortimer makes her grounded and appealing-Allen cleverly ups the stakes of Chris' impending decision.

The return to a more somber tone inspires some of the filmmaker's best writing in years. Far from the neurotic quips of trademark Allen New Yorkers, Match Point's dialogue has a stripped-down, naturalistic force. The scenes in which Chris and Nola alternately seduce and rebuff each other radiate a sexual danger that feels new for Allen. It doesn't hurt that in Johansson, the director has a devastatingly sensual and expressive object of desire. Rhys-Meyers, the consummate pretty boy, is less distinctive, but that makes him ideal for the role: Chris is a slippery enigma, and the tension of the film relies on our uncertainty about whether he's more womanizing social climber or lovesick lost soul. It's ultimately Allen's call, and the riveting final act reveals the difference between Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors. The earlier film suggested the possibility of redemption through learning from one's mistakes, no matter how destructive. The new film offers no such hope, but Allen escapes cynicism by allowing his characters to feel the burn of their wrongdoings. The director's naysayers should stand corrected: Match Point proves that Allen, at 70 years old, is very much still in the game.

-Jon Frosch

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