This site’s review of Hannah and Her Sisters noted a consistent feature of Allen’s work, namely that his characters don’t tend to be preoccupied with normal worldly concerns.
These are people who have accountants to shuffle investments around, who need to free-up cash flow in times of hardship, or have rich friends and family who can slip them a big loan in between a few sips of Sauvignon Blanc. This leaves the characters free to obsess over love, romance, and matters of mortality. This trait is at the heart of this month’s film — Match Point — where Woody Allen uses the backdrop of English high society to explore the themes of relationships, guilt, life, death and justice.
Match Point focuses upon the sphere of influence of the upper class Hewett family. The cuckoo in the Hewett family’s nest is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) an Irish ex-tennis professional. He first enters their social circles as a highly paid coach to Tom Hewett at his exclusive Lawn Tennis club. Tom is in turn dating Scarlett Johansson’s Nola Rice, an aspiring actress from America.
Chris is quickly befriended by Tom and becomes a favorite with his parents Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) and Alec (Brian Cox). He proceeds to become romantically engaged with Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).
As that relationship develops Chloe secures well-paid employment for Chris in one of her father’s many businesses. He is quickly fast-tracked into promotion despite having no qualifications for the job. This process is embraced and encouraged by Chris. There is no moral conundrum among the Hewetts as to whether Chris has actually got the skills to usurp a more qualified candidate for such a job; this is nepotism alive, well and extended to in-laws. Soon Chloe and Chris get married, their situation is regularized, and they begin to try for a family.
So far so good. The fly in the ointment for this happy set of circumstances however is Nola Rice, a dynamic force of nature who serves as a vivid counterpoint to the reserved English characters and the broody Irishman. She proceeds to capture Chris’ attentions to the point of obsession. The two soon become involved in a heated (and ultimately rain soaked) tryst together, despite being in relationships with Tom and Chloe respectively. Chris becomes increasingly infatuated with her and eventually the two become romantically entangled in a long protracted affair. This lasts until Nola falls pregnant, at which point Chris decides that he is going to have to get rid of her….
Unexpected ‘national’ dynamics
Despite a relatively basic plot structure, the fascinating thing about this film is the current operating beneath its surface. The deployment of an Irishman (Chris) and an American (Nola) into this scenario is particularly interesting given the historical connotations associated with those countries and England.
A film that depicts an Irishman placed within an upper-class English family can carry with it the suggestion of a dormant national resentment. This suggestion is not diminished in Match Point by Chris’ actions which ensure that he extracts maximum benefit from the Hewett’s benevolence and ‘philanthropy’. He reaps rewards both financially and in terms of social status through the relationship with Chloe, while having an apparently guilt-free affair with Nola. His every need financially, socially, professionally, romantically and sexually are met through his association with the Hewetts.
Conversely too, one must question whether there is a national guilt-complex being shown in relation to the Hewett family taking Chris in? Is this a case of wealthy English gentry making amends for their country’s historical misadventures in Ireland? Are they making reparations by sponsoring a poor Irishman in their midst? Is there a patronizing element to the English family “educating” the Irishman in the ways of the father’s classical music collection, box at the opera, offers of loans and access to the finest restaurants in London? Do they disregard his native culture and its equal jewels such as Seamus Heaney, James Joyce and Sean O’Casey?
Contrast this with the hostility shown by the same family towards Nora, the American. While Chris is welcomed, she is shunned. Whereas Chris is offered gainful employment and rapid promotion within Alec Hewett’s business interests, she is repeatedly chastised by Tom’s mother for wanting to become an actress.
She is needled and quizzed on this career choice, and made to feel like an outsider to the family. The family as a unit embrace Chris, but shun Nola. One is left with the question of whether this reflects an underlying resentment of the Yankee in their midst, whether this is intended to represent a rejection of the “nouveau riche” of America, and the folly of a wannabe Hollywood starlet not making the cut against the Hewett family social criteria.
Consolidation of status
There are other deep themes in the film. Once Nola falls pregnant with his child, she loses her appeal to Chris, and as she increasingly threatens his new found financial security he moves to secure her murder. He plots and carries out a staged robbery at her neighbor’s home, killing both the elderly neighbor and Nora.
Although, he is later wracked with guilt on these acts, Chris does not reach a stage where he wishes to confess in his interviews with the police. His integration and absorption into the upper classes of society is now complete, and the risk to it is killed off alongside Nora. He will now do anything to protect that place in society even at high cost to his inner morality. Nora was merely collateral damage in his social ascendancy.
A changed perspective on Match Point
As a film these points are underscored by the ‘believability’ of Match Point. This was, however, a quality lacking for much of the film’s British audience upon release. At the time it jarred as representing a particularly idealized notion of English high society. In 2005 when Match Point was released, Tony Blair was Prime Minister in Britain, in charge of a centre-left majority government. The country was into the eighth year of Blair’s premiership at the head of a Labour government that (nominally and philosophically at least) purported to reject the values of the old British establishment.
Labour’s electoral victory over the old establishment was synonymous with a rejection of the right-wing Conservative party who had held the reins of power for the extended period between 1979 and 1997. By 1997 it was time for a political and societal change. The goal? An increasingly classless society built on merit. I should add that the aspiration didn’t always match the end result.
Jump cut to 2017 and Britain is now once more in the arms of a right wing Conservative government, fresh from having rejected membership of the EU project in the Brexit referendum. For 6 of the last 7 years Britain has been led by a privately educated old Etonian Tory Prime Minister. Many of his old school and University attendees, he chose to appoint to Cabinet. One of the members of the Government Michael Gove (he of the Brexit campaign) drew comparisons between Cameron’s inner-team and the cabinet of the Eton-educated Tory Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, who was criticised for alleged nepotism and cronyism.
Britain under the present Government has increasingly reverted to and deferred to old-fashioned class structures and greater limitations on social mobility. The combined wealth of the 1,000 richest men and women in Britain has more than doubled in the last ten years according to the Sunday Times Rich List. In 2015 The Telegraph reported that, “Plain old millionaires increasingly struggle to count themselves among the mega-rich, with a fortune of £100 million now required to make it into the top 1,000. That is £15 million higher than last year’s minimum, while in 1997 it took a personal wealth of ‘just’ £15 million to make the grade.”
I remember upon viewing Match Point thinking it rather quaint and it seemed to be more reflective of a society that existed in England during the 1960s or 70s as opposed to the supposedly new, modern, meritocratic society. Upon re-watching Match Point for this series in 2017, I did so with new eyes. I watched it and thought, my goodness this is actually the way society seems to work now. There is a super-rich elite society centered around London that is increasingly detached from the rest of us, from what our American friends refer to as the 99%. Perception is everything however, and I’m sure this was just as prevalent in 2005, just less obvious to my less cynical eyes.
Had I been writing this article in 2005 I may have derided Match Point as an antiquated representation of England which harked back to old class structures when nepotism was rife. Now, in 2017 it looks highly feasible that a young man could be taken under the wing of a rich family and catapulted to a high flying job and advancement; integrated into the upper classes.
Despite a flurry of initiatives on social mobility, people born in the 1980s are the first group in Britain since the Second Wold War not to start work with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner. The Independent
In short the depiction of Match Point, and the dynamics of the characters within it have become more believable within that context. At its heart is the tale of a young, ambitious outsider, that is able to exploit the societal backdrop into which he is catapulted. This he consolidates through marriage to ultimately use, kill and dispose of another woman without being brought to justice.
Although the film depicts his guilt, it does so with a distinct trace of doubt as to whether that guilt will last. One suspects that pretty soon young Chris, the Irishman of old, will be swirling a delicate glass of fine Armagnac, listening to his Father-in-law’s opera collection, in an estate deep in the Southern English countryside.
The woman that was once a beautiful aspirant actress, his old lover Nora, will be very far from his thoughts. That is the tragedy of the film. Enjoy!