Emily Mortimer and Samantha Morton
Match Point (2005)
Match Point presents us with the question: can you reconcile both lust, and greed? Can we have whatever we want all the time, and get away with it? Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), like Ian and Terry from Cassandra’s Dream, is one of Woody Allen’s doomed London social climbers. Bored with being a tennis instructor for the idle and wealthy, he’s pursued by a student’s sister, Chloe Hewett (Mortimer), a willowy, suave young heiress. The attractive other half of Matthew Goode’s aquiline, aristocratic Tom Hewett. The Hewett children represent the happy, uncomplicated rich of London. Life is a series of public events and perfunctory milestones, and the great challenge is not to be bored by it all.
Chloe sees potential in Chris as an attractive husband, and hones in on him like a heat-seeking missile. Chris is flattered, but not as attracted to Chloe at first. The allure of her wealth and sophistication, however, proves too powerful to resist. As a far as personal style goes, Mortimer flits in and out of the movie as a lithe and graceful figure. Her only intense moment is when she’s pursuing Chris, fairly relentlessly. You wonder; where does that depth of motivation, in a person so aristocratic and nonchalant, come from?
As the woman being married for her money and being cheated on with Scarlett Johanssen’s neurotic sexpot, Nola Rice, Mortimer’s role could have almost been that of a cipher. However, because she’s Emily Mortimer and an actress of terrific range, versatility, and understated grace, she instead turns this role into the representation of reluctant moral conviction. Chloe, her wealth, her rich and happy family, are all the things that Chris stands to loose if his affair with Nola is discovered. So he makes the most appropriate, monstrous decision: to keep his way of life.
Yet all throughout, Chloe has the air of quiet confidence. There’s a notable scene set in The Tate Modern, where Chris runs into Nola again after her relationship with Tom has ended. There’s a palpable sexual charge between them, and anyone can sense it, even Chloe who politely comes over to say hello. Whether she thinks she should be concerned, we’re not quite sure, but she realizes her position and she knows Chris owes everything to her family. It’s a plot almost out of the Henry James novel, The Golden Bowl, where the young and naïve Maggie Verver isn’t as naïve as we come to realize, especially in regard to her straying husband and his sultry mistress.
At the end of Match Point, we’re left to wonder who’s the winner. Chris has his wife, his wealth, but at what cost? He looks out at the expansive window of his loft studio overlooking the Thames, “It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice, some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning. It’s what Sophocles said, ‘To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all.’”
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
For a director who has spent his career championing the notion of verbal comedy, the idea of a mute, British female lead came out of left field for Woody Allen. Although his admiration for the silent-film era stars such as Buster Keaton is palpable, for him to create the completely silent roll of Hattie, played by Morton, is the first of many latter career challenges that Allen would take on.
An obvious method exercise in the expression of non-verbal feelings, Morton’s silent innocence is what helps bring to life the character that Allen wrote for her. Had she been a bitter, stern woman—the vibrant expressions, from shyness to ecstatic admiration of Sean Penn’s character as Emmet Ray—that may have been played off as trivial and unconvincing. Upon close observation, her facial expressions, specifically during the moments where Hattie admires Ray, are those reflected by other characters throughout the film—such as the audience’s reaction during the small-town talent show scam, and during the bustling’ club scenes. Setting a tone with a facial expression is no easy task, yet Morton performs a lasting emotional landscape over the course of Sweet and Lowdown.
Working with two strong, confident male figures such as Penn and Allen and an inimitable is no small feat. Even among a sort of machismo notion of the male musician and old school hegemonic morale, Morton’s character of Hattie finds her confidence throughout the film through the advancement of her body language. In the beginning, when Ray is about to make his trek to Hollywood, he spends his time talking down to her, and Hattie’s body language is slack, while as things progress, her body stands postured and confident. In the end it’s Morton’s character that comes off as a stronger individual, and plays a testament to Allen’s complex latter day female characters (i.e., Match Point, Husbands and Wives, etc), and an outstanding performance from Samantha Morton.
There’s a real depth of understanding between Allen and Morton. As Woody ages, his stylistic element seems to thrive on minimalism, and Morton’s character has subtle variations throughout the film. Instead of the bombastic dialogue and ideals of Allen’s earlier career, he embraces the true ambition of an actress not only from a great dialogue standpoint, but as a presence on the screen—an area Morton certainly doesn’t lack in. While many find their favoritism leaning towards the roles of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, they sometimes forget that Allen knows better than anyone how to choose a female lead—whether that female lead is an obvious favorite or a role that comes into fruition with time, much like Hattie.
Sweet and Lowdown was extremely formative in Morton’s career as an actress, and it led her down a fruitful path of credible independent cinema. Landing career-defining roles in the mind-expanding Synecdoche, New York and the oddball sensation Mister Lonely, Morton has shown her diversity and ability to grow into nearly any role on the big screen.