Something about England seems to bring out the worst in Woody Allen. He appeared to be coming back to form in Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But his latest film is of a piece with the wretched Match Point and Scoop, although less pleasing than either.
Allen's dialogue does not seem to work in English mouths. Here the characters speak obviously American, indeed New York lines with English accents and in English rhythms, and sound phoney and self-conscious.
Many American critics do not notice this and think that his English-set films are charming, just as they do not notice the way that accents are often painfully wrong for the class and regional contexts of those films.
This lack of verisimilitude would not matter so much if the films were more entertaining or perceptive or stimulating. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is not any of those things - in fact, it may be the worst film Allen has ever made.
The first scene in which a main character visits a fortune teller is so amateurish that you almost wonder if the actors and director are working from the first draft of a screenplay by a first-year film student. Certainly it is impossible to imagine that a script featuring such a weak plot and such amateurish dialogue would ever be filmed if it did not have Allen's name on the front page.
The film would never have been made had it not got Allen’s name on it
Very quickly you get a sense that at some level Allen must know that he is telling an unfunny, unromantic, undramatic, joyless story: hence the overreliance on a jaunty jazz score and a heavy-handed voice-over narration to convey the impression that something witty and diverting is happening on screen.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the unhappy relationships of Alfie and Helena (pronounced Helayna, American style), a divorced older couple played by Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones, their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her American writer husband Roy (Josh Brolin), and their various love interests. These include Sally's boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), a lovely neighbour (Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire) whom Roy watches from his study window, and a particularly unappealing call girl (Lucy Punch) whom Alfie hires for the night and decides to marry. There is also a stale subplot about Roy stealing a manuscript.
But the centre of the film is provided by Helena, tediously in thrall to the uninterestingly fake fortune teller (Pauline Collins). Helena is, as her daughter says, a "crazy imbecile", though that makes her combination of idiocy and selfishness sound more intriguing than it is. There is nothing perceptive or creditable about Allen's contempt for this character and her credulity, only the mystery that the man who made Manhattan could waste his and your time with such an uninspired creation.
But then none of the characters is either sympathetic, or compelling in their unpleasantness. Dialogue that is supposed to be flirtatious, sexy and clever is often crass; Brolin and Pinto have no chemistry and that between Banderas and Watts is wasted.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is sour and mirthless and without redeeming wisdom or understanding of the human condition. When it stops suddenly, without a satisfying ending, as if Allen simply ran out of energy, inspiration or money, you feel as much as relief as disappointment, though it is hard not to feel sympathy for a talented cast that clearly struggled to make the most of their thankless roles.