For years, Woody Allen has desperately needed to get away from his terminal Upper East Side complacency and try something different, but I never thought he’d go ahead and do it. Actually, this isn’t as much of a radical departure as it first appears. Although Allen clearly recognizes the subtle distinctions between London and New York, he’s still fixated on class and social climbing, only this time he’s pushed it up front and, along with the notion of luck, has made it the crux on which the story hangs.

His protagonist, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is a failed Irish tennis pro from a poor background who has relocated to London to work as an instructor at a posh country club. He strikes up a friendship with Tom (Matthew Goode), one of the club’s wealthy clients, and rapidly infiltrates himself into Tom’s social circle, befriending his family and dating his sister, Chloe (an affable Emily Mortimer). Unfortunately, Chris also becomes smitten with Nola (Scarlett Johannson) a failed American actress living in England who turns out to be Tom’s fiancée.

Chris and Nola inevitably start an impulsive, steamy affair, even as one of them gets married and the other is dumped by their respective partners. As complications arise, Chris has to decide between social/financial status and moral responsibility and love (or is that just lust?). The choice he ultimately makes, while not altogether surprising, is genuinely shocking in the way Allen coldly, methodically carries it out. And while Johannson can only do so much with her showy, underdeveloped character, Rhys-Meyers finally proves himself worthy as a leading presence so many years after he first made an impression in VELVET GOLDMINE. Penelope Wilton and Brian Cox also shine as Tom’s perfectly-detailed upper-crust parents.

MATCH POINT has obvious similarities with the director’s last substantial dramatic film, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. In the latter, Allen tempered a comparable adultery plot with a comedic one in which he cast himself as the protagonist. Although I appreciated the Shakespearian parallels (and comic relief) at the time, in memory, the secondary plot seems glib and distracting, lessening the primary one’s impact. This time, his familiar persona is entirely absent from the proceedings (Chris is definitely not a stand-in for Woody), thus giving us no escape routes. Along with a renewed focus and restraint, it leaves us with a smartly paced thriller that, while occasionally contrived, both involves and haunts to an unexpected degree.

This isn’t anywhere in the league of the man’s best comedies, and his Delusions of Bergman (or in this case, Hitchcock) haven’t vanished, either. But, at the very least, this is an encouraging step away from his recent auto-pilot efforts. Now, if only he could make a funny film this disciplined and affecting. (4/5)