Film Review | You will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

Maybe the opening lines, delivered by a narrator, are a warning. And at the end, the same line from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is repeated: “A tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This could well be the essence of Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a play on the words often prophesied by crystal-ball gazers or a possible metaphor for death.

Set in London, the film tracks one family. Helena (Gemma Jones) loses hope when her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) walks out of their 40-year marriage. She becomes dependent on pills, whisky and a charlatan clairvoyant called Cristal (Pauline Collins), who reads fortunes from a deck of playing cards.

Scared at the thought of his mortality, Alfie starts going to the gym, rents a bachelor pad and stocks up on Viagra. A lonely Helena leans on her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), who is muddling through her own angst. She’d like to start a family but that’s financially unviable as her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), who gave up a career in medicine to pursue the dream of becoming a writer, is unable to land a book deal.

Roy spends his days waiting to hear back from publishers. In his idle state, he becomes fascinated by a woman in red playing Boccherini at her window across the courtyard. One day, he musters up the courage to ask musician Dia (Freida Pinto) out for lunch and, since this is the work of Allen, nothing stops at lunch.

Connections: It’s a mixed bag of performances in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Across town, Helena finds comfort in the company of a recently widowed bookshop owner Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who is still obsessed with his wife. When a séance does not yield the result she hoped for, Helena breaks up with Jonathan. She tells Sally: “He left me for another woman—a deceased one. They’re often our stiffest competition." It’s an obvious pun, but classic Allen.

In the meanwhile, husband Alfie, trying to hold on to fading youth and suffering some late-life crisis, has his teeth whitened and skin darkened. But bachelor life is not what he bargained for, and unable to find the younger company he so desires, he hires the services of call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch), proposes marriage to her and woos her with expensive gifts.

In a truly comical scene, which is vintage Allen, Alfie stalls Charmaine’s advances as he waits for the Viagra to take effect. But the pills are no match for the illusion. Alfie is unable to keep up with Charmaine’s youth and frivolity.

Helena, Alfie and Sally try to balance their delusions with reality. And while Helena is seen as the most delusional, swayed by the shallow words of her fortune-teller, it is she who meets her stranger—not tall or dark but fat, fair and balding. Father and daughter, however, are left in limbo.

When writer-director Allen left his muse New York, he left behind his magic. Flashes of his brilliance returned with Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works. But with this work, like his struggling writer Roy, Allen seems to be rehashing old scenarios in new cities. He manages to enlist A-list talent who probably hope that some of the Allen magic of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Bullets over Broadway will return. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is listless formula fare lacking the chutzpah of his Manhattan diaries or the exuberance of his earlier works.

Watts, Banderas, Hopkins and Jones are superb and add depth to two-dimensional, dissatisfied and whiny characters. Brolin and Pinto share no chemistry. As an exotic distraction and Roy’s muse, Pinto has little to do, though the vulnerability in her draws you to sympathize with Dia. Anupam Kher makes a modest two-scene appearance as Dia’s father.

As the film draws to a close, the narrator says, “Sometimes the illusions works better than the medicine." The illusion doesn’t really work in this film.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger released in theatres on Friday.