World renowned conjuror Wei Ling Soo is better known to his very few friends as Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) – an opinionated Englishman with a tangible disdain for the weak, gullible and “mentally defective”. Flattered by the extravagant compliments of lifelong friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney) – and abandoning plans to holiday with his pragmatic fiancée Olivia – Stanley agrees to a trip to the Cote d’Azur to debunk a young psychic who has become indispensable to a prosperous widow and her family.
Under the pretext of a visit to his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Stanley descends upon the Catledge villa determined to strike a killing blow to the cheeky American upstart before the day is out. But the Aha! poised upon his lips dangles ineffectually as Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) and her mother greet him with engaging smiles and the first in a series of impossible divinations into his private life. Irritated by her refusal to adhere to stereotype – and niggled by Catledge heir Brice’s ceaseless ukulele serenades – he redoubles his efforts to unsettle her and girds himself against her sneaky siren wiles.
A séance, a sunny smile and a storm are the formidable weapons which break through Stanley’s defences. And suddenly the world is a wondrous place. He literally stops to smell the roses, to take pleasure in the moment and to unselfconsciously embrace the notion that there is a life beyond that which we see. Altogether a most peculiar way for a well bred Englishman to behave! As Brice’s musical pursuit of Sophie cranks up a gear – and the world’s press gather for an exclusive announcement about life after death – Stanley has to consider the very ridiculous possibility that he may have fallen in love.
Serial Woody Allen collaborator DP Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love) infuses the evocative locations with a romantic, radiant energy while an autochrome style render from Pascal Dangin lends period authenticity. Magic in the Moonlight is an easy breezy quick step of a film, with sufficient quirks and surprises to raise a smile but far fewer laughs than it ought to have charmed forth. Its problem lies with the actors – which is an extraordinary diagnosis given their calibre – who each seem to have been given discordant notes about tone. The result is an asymmetry of cadence which would look like a failed lie detector test were we to plot it and which is detrimental to the smooth dance of the story.
Eileen Atkins and Colin Firth waltz Wilde with the words they have been given and their shared screen time IS magical. His articulate snobbery and reluctant emotional journey recall his turn as Earnest, even as Magic in the Moonlight seems determined to remind us he will always be Darcy. Conversely, Stone and the usually delightful Simon McBurney are weighed down by the mumbles, stumbles and naturalism of classic Allen dialogue and when each is paired with Firth’s scoffing effusion they seem to shuffle apologetically behind. This is such a dreadful pity because both have the ebullience and grace to have parried every one of Stanley’s verbal thrusts.
Allen’s preoccupation with the exchanges between Sophie and Stanley comes at a detriment to the picture. Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie’s shrewd mother/manager Mrs. Baker, is far too often occupied just off screen. A terrible waste of a potentially fascinating character (and of an actor) who could have hand-bagged Stanley into submission. To omit a confrontation between the two seems an oversight. There is too little chemistry for the would-be lovers to captivate us. Brice (Hamish Linklater) and his daft attempts to woo are far sweeter to watch, his insubstantiality and harmlessness more beguiling.
Magic in the Moonlight is not destined to become a classic. It feels like a curious mix of The Importance of Being Earnest and Evil Under the Sun and would have been vastly improved by a murder – something for everyone to get nice and melodramatic about. But, like many of Woody Allen’s lesser works, it still holds the power to enchant. Stunning to look at, packed with period detail and tied with the bow of a jolly happy ending, this might well be the perfect way to brighten a gloomy autumn day. Just leave more sceptical friends at home.