“The only ship that’s certain to come in has black sails.”
Murder and guilt are two recurring themes in the films of Woody Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors makes my Top Film list, but other more recent Woody Allen films also chew over the same issues (Match Point & Scoop). At first glance Cassandra’s Dream may seem to be a lesser effort, but it’s a mistake to dismiss this film too quickly. Think of Cassandra’s Dream as a Greek tragedy, and you’ll be a lot happier with the film.
Cassandra’s Dream tells the story of two working class brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) in London. Ian works at the family restaurant, but he doesn’t plan to stay there for long. Although the film does not examine Ian’s past, there are hints that Ian who burns with ambition and the quest for material wealth has had a series of failed business plans. His latest get-rich-quick scheme is to invest in ‘hotels’ in Southern California. Although Ian acts as though he’s doing his father a favour by ‘helping out’ in the restaurant, the shoe may be on the other foot. Ian never seems to actually work in the restaurant–instead the place seems to fill the function of a personal cash machine for Ian. When Ian meets an ambitious “high maintenance” actress, Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell), he comes under increasing financial pressure.
Terry, on the other hand, is ambitionless, and he’s in a loving, successful relationship. He’s content to remain as a mechanic, and from his boss’s repair shop, he ‘lends’ the flashiest sports cars to Ian. Terry’s secret vice is gambling, and unfortunately he’s not particularly good at it.
Ian and Terry enjoy a good relationship, but they are so alike in some ways and yet also so opposite that in some scenes they appear to be halves of the same person. While Terry is more like his father, Ian seems to take after his mother (Clare Higgins)–a woman who never allows her husband (John Benfield) to forget that he’s a loser who owes his salvation to her wonderful, millionaire brother, Howard (Tom Wilkinson). Howard–a wealthy plastic surgeon with clinics all over the world–looms like some distant god in the family’s life. Ian, who inherits his mother’s avarice longs to have the sort of lifestyle enjoyed by Uncle Howard, and he certainly doesn’t intend to work for his first million.
The family is thrilled at the news that Uncle Howard is arriving for a whirlwind visit to England, but it soon becomes horribly apparent that Howard is there for a reason. Howard’s mask of genial wealthy uncle slips, and underneath is a cold calculating man who expects his nephews to pay back all of his earlier generosity through a brutal murder.
Cassandra’s Dream develops with the cold clear lines of a Greek tragedy as Ian and Terry are sucked into their fate, and just as a Greek tragedy doesn’t function to answer extraneous issues, the film doesn’t answer all of the questions it raises. What’s so interesting here is the fallout from the crime. Ian only stands to benefit from the crime, and so to him the murder is just a hurtle to overcome on the path to his new rock and life lifestyle in California. On the other hand, the murder will not create any real benefit for Terry, and so to him the aftermath of the crime leaves him face to face with his old life and his addictions.
These characters face their flaws and are inevitably destroyed by their flaws. While Woody Allen does not seem to hit the right notes with his creation of the British working class (for that try Mike Leigh), nonetheless this examination of morality replaced by materialism is still great stuff.