2013, 98mins, 15
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast includes: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K, Peter Sarsgaard
UK Release Date: 27th September 2013
“Woody Allen returns to form!”
The above phrase is quickly translating into the epitome of clichéd film journalism, dished out whenever the king of nebbish comedy sees fit to release a new picture. Whether it’s the sultry tones of “Vicky Christina Barcelona” or the surrealist wit of “Midnight in Paris” the film-maker’s contemporary works are constantly labelled as throwbacks to the Allen of old; oases within a supposed qualitative drought that consistently eludes any firm categorisation. In the spirit of this distasteful phenomenon, Allen’s latest effort “Blue Jasmine” is pulling such predictable praise. However the hyperbolic headlines offend even more on this occasion because “Jasmine” is quite unlike anything the director has previously attempted; the movie amounting to both a damning social critique and heart-breaking embodiment of personal destitution. It’s incredible to observe a seasoned director now well into his seventies produce such vital output, all powered by a towering turn from the regal Cate Blanchett.
Following her husband’s implication in severe financial scandal, previously wealthy socialite Jasmine (Blanchett) is left with no alternative but to shack up with sibling Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her macho beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale) in San Francisco. Disarmed by the transition from New York luxury to working class strife, Jasmine attempts to correct the course of her life via study and part-time work; the eventual aim being a return to the lavish abundance of old. However scuppering her ambitions is a crippling alcohol dependency and underlying depression, leaving her soul writhing in perpetual discontentment and guilt.
The superficial similarities with Tennessee Williams’ seminal “A Streetcar Named Desire” are evident (although Allen denies any artistic links) but under that familiar surface “Blue Jasmine” works out to be its own entity. The feature is laced with the acidic and amusing comic dexterity that defines much of Allen’s famed output, but it’s also an emotionally complex and heartbreakingly cynical work, critically underlining issues of class separation and contemporary consumerist ethics. So much of Jasmine’s fall from grace can be attributed to material and monetary woe, Allen eschewing a generation’s obsession with tangible gain and security, watching as the toxic dependency destroys his title character and sends ripples of penetrating grief through those who surround her. Allen has connected firmly with a topical social concern in “Blue Jasmine”, lending it a level of cultural importance that few movies have been able to navigate so skilfully this year.
Blanchett is a magnificent screen presence, transforming Jasmine into a figure of pity rather than sympathy, which given her questionable priorities is perfectly judged. Her journey through the film is performed with power and naturalism, avoiding sensationalist moments of bombast in favour of a quieter, more pointedly tragic portrait of mental collapse. It’s all authentically played and we completely feel the bedrock of Jasmine’s past life wither into meaningless detritus, but Allen never forgets to communicate a wider message of despair; engaging solidly with the notion that “stuff” leaves you soulless. All of this is spectacularly aided by fine supporting turns from Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay, surfacing as familial victims of Jasmine’s lasting selfishness. It’s Blanchett’s film, but there’s genuine value to be found in those around her too.
“Blue Jasmine” is constructed for optimal catharsis (Allen deploys flashbacks effectively) and isn’t without softness in spots. There are laughs to be had and the dialogue carries with it terrific intelligence, but in this case the mirth is outweighed by necessarily rich characterisation and social engagement. It paints harsh images of alcoholism, greed and self-serving sacrifice, without clumsily damning them. They are worrying but very prominent attributes within our world; Allen merely displaying their negative effects as opposed to patronising us with any sort of behavioural diatribe. The cinematography courtesy of Javier Aguirresarobe is also noteworthy, using muted and delicate tones to help visually replicate Jasmine’s frail consciousness.
I will never conclude by citing anything as a “comeback” for Allen. It’s a pedestrian remark, indicative of those who haven’t put enough thought into the cinema they seek to discuss. However “Blue Jasmine” is the film-maker’s most achingly human and sophisticated work for some time; free from indulgence and played entirely as impactful and courageous entertainment. Personally, that’s what I seek from top tier Allen.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013