Film Review: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

Colin Firth and Emma Stone make magic together in Woody Allen's breezily entertaining 1920s romance.

Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Jeremy Shamos, Ute Lemper.

Romance blooms under the sun and the stars in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” a high-spirited bauble that goes down easy thanks to fleet comic pacing, a surfeit of ravishing Cote d’Azur vistas and the genuinely reactive chemistry of stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone. A welcome balm for the blockbuster-addled soul, Allen’s 44th feature finds the director back in the 1920s Gallic mood of 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” with the star-crossed lovers this time held apart not by time but rather by philosophical inclinations. While the result may not quite equal “Midnight’”s box office bonanza, expect “Magic” to handily corner the upscale adult demo for the remainder of summer, continuing the Woodman’s late-career hot streak.

A childhood magic buff and amateur magician, Allen has incorporated hypnotists, stage illusionists and touches of the supernatural into many films including “Alice,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Scoop,” the last of which Allen himself has aptly referred to as “a trivial little Kleenex of a film.” By that measure, Allen’s latest is more of a monogrammed silk handkerchief, with Firth smoothly stepping into the role of Stanley Crawford, a celebrated London prestidigitator who performs in yellowface under the stage name Wei Ling-soo and maintains a healthy sideline in debunking sham mystics of all sorts, “from the seance table to the Vatican and beyond.”

A nod to the 19th-century American magician William Ellsworth Robinson (who performed as the Chinese Chung Ling-soo), it’s a tailor-made part for Firth’s dyspeptic charisma, and reps one of the few times Allen has successfully cast an onscreen surrogate who doesn’t slavishly mimic his own line readings and mannerisms. (Firth is closer here to the Rex Harrison of “My Fair Lady,” a likeness Allen acknowledges in an homage to that film’s famous final shot.)

The movie opens in 1928, with Stanley being approached backstage by friend and fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. In the south of France, a wealthy Pittsburgh industrial family has fallen under the spell of a certain Sophie Baker (Stone), a young American woman passing herself off as a clairvoyant. Son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is so smitten he’s all but signed the marriage contract, while Howard — despite his best efforts — has been unable to unmask the interloper as a fraud. So into the breach Stanley goes, presenting himself as a businessman named Taplinger, only to find himself quickly seduced — less by Sophie’s “psychic vibrations” than by her moony, freckle-faced charms.

He’s not the only one: Allen and his “Midnight” d.p. Darius Khondji have lit Stone so radiantly that she seems almost translucent, the way Scarlett Johansson appeared in the early scenes of “Match Point.” But it’s Stone’s wonderful comic presence that shines brightest. Casting her hands before her as she communes with the spirit world and sounding astonished by the most mundane of revelations, her Sophie is the sort of slightly aloof dingbat original Shelley Duvall or Julie Hagerty used to play, and the trick of Stone’s performance is that we, like Stanley, can’t quite sort out whether she’s a phony or the real deal — at least for a while.

In truth, Allen doesn’t seem terribly concerned about maintaining a convincing air of mystery here, and even the least attentive of viewers may find themselves one or two steps ahead of Stanley’s sleuthing. What interests Allen more is the ideological tug of war that erupts in Firth’s erstwhile man of reason, whom one character describes as “a perfect depressive with everything sublimated into his art.” Maybe, just maybe, “Magic in the Moonlight” suggests, a little self-delusion is necessary in order to make life bearable. And while no one would ever mistake Allen for a believer, “Magic” is surely the first of his movies to feature a long (and mostly sincere) scene in which a character contemplates the power of prayer.

Whenever Firth and Stone are onscreen together, the movie sings; the rest of the time it’s never less than a breezy divertissement. As usual, Allen has filled out the cast with a who’s-who of gifted character actors, some of whom have actual roles, while others seem like onlookers at a garden party. The sly Eileen Atkins fares best as Stanley’s crafty aunt in Provence, while Marcia Gay Harden gets a few choice bits as Sophie’s bullish stage mother. Improbably cast as a Pennsylvania matriarch for the second time in as many years (after “Silver Linings Playbook”), ’70s Aussie screen icon Jacki Weaver rounds out the ensemble as Linklater’s equally bewitched mom.

France does seem to bring out the best in Allen, who, working with much of his “Midnight” crew, has delivered one of his most beautifully made films. Lensing in widescreen 35mm, Allen and Khondji favor elegantly choreographed traveling master shots bathed in natural light (shooting took place up and down the Riviera, including Cap d’Antibes, Mouans-Sartoux, Juan-les-Pins and Nice), while production designer Anne Seibel fosters an effortless period air and costume designer Sonia Grande dresses Stone in a parade of white lace, floral hats and one especially va-va-voom red-and-white sailor’s outfit.

The typically rich sourced soundtrack here includes snatches of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven alongside the usual American songbook standards (Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, et al.). Lauded German cabaret singer Ute Lemper appears briefly as a period version of herself, crooning Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer’s “It’s All a Swindle,” which could easily have served as an alternate title for Allen’s film.

Film Review: 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Reviewed at Sony screening room, New York, June 25, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release presented in association with Gravier Prods. of a Dippermouth production in association with Perdido Prods. & Ske-Dat-De-Dat Prods. Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson. Executive producer, Ronald L. Chez. Co-producers, Helen Robin, Raphael Benoliel. Co-executive producer, Jack Rollins.

Crew: Directed, written by Woody Allen. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, 35mm), Darius Khondji; editor, Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; art director, Jean-Yves Rabier; set decorator, Jille Azis; costume designer, Sonia Grande; supervising sound editor, Robert Hein; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Marie Blondel; re-recording mixers, Lee Dichter, Robert Hein; visual effects supervisor, Andrew Lim; visual effects, Boxmotion; assistant director, Gil Kenny; second unit camera, Chris Plevin; casting Juliet Taylor, Patricia DiCerto.

With: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Jeremy Shamos, Ute Lemper.

More Film

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

  • Klaudia-Reynicke

    Locarno: Summerside Picks Up ‘Love Me Tender’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rome-based Summerside Intl. has acquired international sales rights to Klaudia Reynicke’s “Love Me Tender.” The second feature from Peru-born and Switzerland-based filmmaker will receive its world premiere at the Locarno Festival in its Filmmakers of the Present competition, which focuses on first and second features. Summerside Intl. is the world sales agent, excluding and Lichtenstein [...]

  • Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham2019 Writers

    Writers Guild Announces 2020 Awards Show Date

    The 72nd Annual Writers Guild Awards will take place in coinciding ceremonies in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton and the Edison Ballroom in New York on Feb. 1, the Writers Guild of America announced. The WGA will begin voting in November and will reveal this year’s TV nominees Dec. 5 and film Jan. 6. [...]

  • Tarantino Movies Ranked Illustration

    All of Quentin Tarantino's Movies Ranked

    In the history of cinema, has any director done more to elevate the idea of movies as cool than Quentin Tarantino? Certainly, the idea that films could be made by fans dates back at least to the French New Wave, when a group of die-hard critics stepped behind the camera. A few years later, Spielberg, [...]

  • A Stranger on the Beach

    Anonymous Content Wins Film Rights to Michele Campbell's 'A Stranger on the Beach' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Anonymous Content has won the adaptive rights to the forthcoming Michele Campbell novel “A Stranger on the Beach.” In a competitive situation, Anonymous outbid multiple players for the thriller, which it will adapt for the big screen with in-house producers Alex Goldstone and Rosalie Swedlin. “Stranger” has been likened to sensual thrillers like “Fatal Attraction” [...]

  • Ridley Scott Matt Damon Ben Affleck

    Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener Team on 'The Last Duel'

    Ridley Scott looks to have his next directing job, as he has signed on to direct “The Last Duel” with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck attached to star. Damon and Affleck co-wrote the script with Oscar-nominated Nicole Holofcener. Scott, Damon and Affleck all producing along with Scott’s producing partner Kevin Walsh. Drew Vinton is also [...]

  • Jonathan Taylor Thomas Ed Asner Elliott

    Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Ed Asner, Elliott Gould Seek SAG-AFTRA Board Seats

    Ed Asner, Elliott Gould and Jonathan Taylor Thomas are seeking SAG-AFTRA national board seats as members of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Asner is the former president of the Screen Actors Guild, serving two terms from 1981 to 1985, and winning five Emmys for his role as Lou Grant and two others [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content