Match Point

“Everybody’s afraid to admit what a big part luck plays in life,” says Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Woody Allen’s delicious new drama “Match Point.” For a tennis player like Chris, luck is pivotal. Sometimes it’s all that determines whether the ball falls on your side of the net or your opponent’s. Sometimes it’s how you get a plum job giving tennis lessons at a snooty London country club. Why, with luck on your side, you can do just about anything.

Chris, a good but not brilliant player, gives up professional tennis to work at the country club, where one of his students is Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), son of a local business tycoon. Both in their mid-20s and sharing a common interest in opera — opera will provide an undercurrent of commentary throughout the film — Tom and Chris become friends off the court, too.

Despite the appearance so far that at least one of the men is gay, such is not the case. Tom Hewett is engaged to Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an American girl in London trying to make it as an actress, whom his imperious mother (Penelope Wilton) doesn’t approve of. And Chris is soon dating Tom’s sister, the refined Chloe (Emily Mortimer).

The Hewett family patriarch, Alec (Brian Cox), who runs a corporation of some kind, is delighted to have Chris as a potential member of the family. He admires how the lad has come from a hardscrabble existence and fought his way to the top.

What he doesn’t know, nor anyone else, is that while Chris is dating Chloe, he is strongly drawn to Nola — yes, the fiancee of his best friend. There is an incident between them. Later, when the way is somewhat more clear for them to be together, a relationship develops. But Chris is trapped between her and another woman, and he can no longer rely on luck to get out of it. He must take action.

Woody Allen is best known for his comedies, but his dramas have earned him nearly as much critical praise. At this point, when his last few comedies have been weak, a solid drama seems the way to go. And what a change it is from his usual fare! The long takes and elegantly simple shot compositions remind us that it’s a Woody Allen movie, but the content, while not totally without precedent (see “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in particular), is certainly not typical.

Significantly, this is Allen’s first movie to be shot entirely outside the United States, and one of only a few not set in New York City. You can see him experimenting with what London has to offer, working in a shot of Big Ben here, the Houses of Parliament there. But more importantly, London offers fresh subject matter, particularly in the divide between the haves and the have-nots. We have a class system in America too, of course, but it’s not nearly as pronounced, nor is crossing between classes nearly as big a deal as it is among the London upper crust.

Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Nola, a woman increasingly on the verge of desperation and craziness, is remarkable, especially considering her age (she just turned 21). There’s also something to be said for Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Irish actor who has barely elicited notice before but who is alarmingly in control as the unflappable, methodical Chris Wilton. The actor manipulates the film as well as the character manipulates people: precisely, and almost without trying.

B+ (2 hrs., 4 min.; R, brief strong sexuality and brief violence.)