Magic in the Moonlight might be better if it weren’t quite so perfectly choreographed. The audience can sense in too many scenes a meticulous director framing just the right corner of a lush garden between his hands, advising a move just a few steps to the right or left.
Winding shoreline roads with gasp-worthy views take just the right number of seconds for the characters to get from a crystal -goblet- brunch overlooking the tennis court to a day in Provence. Every outdoor meeting place is overhung with enough floral trellises to stage several weddings or else inside estates that European old money might have purchased in 1928, the year of the story. “Opulent” isn’t enough to do it justice.
Against that background live the characters—not tourists, but residents who actually live there, bored Gatsby-style and seeking meaning by falling in and out of love. A young man courting Emma Stone’s character is “always chasing rainbows” just like those in the song that accompanies some of the action, looking for the person who epitomizes another of its anthems, “Thou swell, thou witty, thou sweet, thou grand.”
Emma Stone’s dressed-like-a-waif character is a séance maven from this side of the pond egged on by her stage door mama, and séance aficionados in splendid houses are just waiting to be conducted into her spell. The thing is, Firth’s act as a flamboyant Oriental stage magician and her act have much the same basis— purposeful distractions so that their audiences miss what the magician is actually doing.
So the ending of the film—no, I won’t spoil it for you—feels remarkable, like a maestro’s swift ending to a long piece sung by The Three Tenors. Allen cons us into one conclusion but then supplies another.
The plot is simple enough, one conning character trying to outcon another. To Have and Have Not is a timely reminder that this kind of plot is not new but has lasting interest. There, Betty Joan Perske—Lauren Bacall to most of us—is dancing with her mark and picking his pocket while Bogie saunters off to wait for her at the hotel. Here, Emma Stone cons—oops, creates an illusion—that delights her hostess, namely, that her late husband had loved her only and approved of her investment plans.
But the mysterious rapping in the room isn’t the only evidence. A candle apparently moving through the air on its own is the last straw for those resisting the magic. How exactly was it done?
Sleight of hand, whether of a grand illusionist with a well-appointed stage or of the waif Sophie—named for “wisdom," is really the same thing, just with different props. But what about the real world? Firth’s character, even though he is a stage magician, wonders if there is a metaphysical life, beyond what can be seen. More than one mention of Nietzsche seeks to justify the interest in what life and the world are all for, anyway, and so the film explores the defenses of illusion-making in general. Is there any harm in it, Sophie demands to know. The audience is left to ponder what is a central issue in the film, unresolved until the surprise ending.
Austen’s novels also have characters who meet in the space of a fortnight’s visit. It’s just enough time to attend a ball, ride together in elegant carriages, enjoy sedate picnics on country estates, and become attached. The same kinds of goings-on happen in other decades and places besides France in 1928. So the background here is both important to the plot and at the same time of no real consequence. But there is one difference that Allen either was alluding to purposely in his almost obscene use of posh decoration or unconsciously supplied—that unseen except in hindsight is the shadow of the coming Great Depression.
The film is worth seeing for its nuanced, though largely unintellectual, explorations, and even if only for the excellent performances of Firth, Stone, and Eileen Atkins as Firth’s insightful aunt.
Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column.