Cassandra’s Dream

Woody Allen is 72 years old, and “Cassandra’s Dream” is his 38th theatrical feature, yet it’s alive with energy and ideas, not to mention good old-fashioned suspense and tragedy. It plays like a milder version of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (by 83-year-old Sidney Lumet), as both films deal with brothers who get into more trouble than they can handle. The question is, how come our nation’s elderly filmmakers are so interested in these intensely morbid subjects?

Set once again in London, Allen’s newfound source of inspiration, “Cassandra’s Dream” begins with brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) buying a sailboat they cannot afford. They name it Cassandra’s Dream after the dog Terry bet on to win enough for the down payment, but the name is really Allen’s sly way of invoking the mythological Cassandra, whose premonitions of doom always went unheeded.

Ian works at their father’s struggling restaurant but yearns to become a real estate investor. Terry works at a garage and has a weakness for gambling, as well as for alcohol and codeine (not a wise combination). The brothers are fiercely loyal to one another, freely lending money or other help whenever they can. As their dear old mother (Clare Higgins) puts it, “In the end, all you have in this life that you can count on is family.” Remember that for later.

Mom has a brother, Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a plastic surgeon whose several clinics worldwide have made him a millionaire. The boys know they can count on him for a loan if things get tight, and their mother makes reference to her brother’s generosity frequently, usually in the context of complaining that her husband (John Benfield) hasn’t been nearly as successful in life.

Howard comes for a visit, and just in time, too. Terry has racked up a sizable gambling debt, threatening his hopes of buying a house with his long-term girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins). Ian needs capital for an investment in some Los Angeles hotels, which is part of a larger plan of moving to L.A. with his new girlfriend, a coyly seductive actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell).

Howard can lend the boys the cash, but this time he needs them to do something for him in return. I think you’ll have more fun with the movie if I don’t tell you what it is. Suffice it to say that it’s not legal, moral, or easy.

Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor make a convincing pair of brothers who have grown up to be best friends, and their fraternal affection for one another is endearing. Tom Wilkinson, surely one of the best character actors in the business, grabs the film by the throat in his few (but crucial) scenes. I love that Allen tends to shoot in long, unbroken takes, and will let the actors stumble over their words here and there without re-doing it — not because he’s sloppy, but because the lack of eloquence makes the dialogue feel natural. Wilkinson has a few of those moments that dramatically increase the feeling that these are real people who are getting into some scary business.

Allen laces the story with many references to dreams, both the kind you have when you’re asleep (Terry is plagued by nightmares) and the kind you speak of wistfully when you’re awake. Ian has his dream of moving to L.A.; Terry wants to open a sporting goods store; their father has poured his whole life into his restaurant. All of these ambitions are fanciful, perhaps inaccessible altogether. This isn’t the story of criminals or bad guys, but of regular people who let themselves get caught up in wanting what they can’t have. That’s been the stuff of tragedy since the days of the ancient Greeks, and Woody Allen has made dramatic use of it.

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, brief mild violence, some very mild sexuality.)