The Spanish sun has clearly rejuvenated Woody Allen’s career. After making three films in London with diminishing returns – the commercially successful but critically reviled Match Point and box-office duds Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream – he’s noticeably benefited from a good dose of Vitamin D: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his most entertaining movie in years.
It’s a comic moral fable about the romantic misadventures of a pair of young American students visiting Barcelona for the summer. Played winningly by Rebecca Hall (daughter of legendary stage director Peter Hall and opera singer Maria Ewing) and Scarlett Johansson, the two friends have very different attitudes to life and love. Sensible, cautious Vicky (Hall) is all ready to settle down with her dependable but dull fiancé when she returns home, but free-spirited, wannabe bohemian Cristina (Johansson) is eager to embrace whatever amorous escapades the trip might offer.
So when Javier Bardem’s hedonistic painter Juan Antonio invites the pair to join him as a threesome on a trip to Oviedo, Vicky balks but Cristina jumps at the chance. As it happens, things don’t pan out as you might expect, thanks partly to an ill-timed bout of food poisoning, but before long Cristina finds herself shacked up in a bizarre ménage-a-trois with Juan Antonio and his tempestuous ex-wife.
As you all know by now, Penélope Cruz is the ex-wife and she’s tremendous, a veritable tornado of jealousy, craziness and sensuality that whirls into the movie about 50 minutes in and blows everyone else off screen. She’s been nominated for an Oscar (she’s already got a Bafta) – and she’ll probably win.
In truth, Cruz is a lot better than the movie itself. She and Bardem have been cast as typically fiery Latins, but they inhabit their roles with such passion and humour that you overlook the stereotypes – at least you do if you aren’t Spanish. If you are, as my Spanish friends have confirmed, then the movie’s cultural faux pas are as glaring as the gaffes in Woody’s English films. But it seems the Spanish are more tolerant – Vicky Cristina Barcelona won a couple of gongs at Catalan cinema’s Gaudí awards –Best Film in a non-Catalan language, Best Original Music for Giulia y los Tellarini, and, of course, Best Supporting Actress for Cruz.
¡Bravo Woody! He has, however, apparently fallen out with the Spanish authorities that contributed generously to Vicky Cristina Barcelona and has abandoned plans to make further films in Spain. Instead, he’s coming back to London to shoot an as yet untitled film this summer with Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins. Let’s hope the sun shines. (General release from 13th February)