We are told by gushing fans in the guise of critics that great artists always reinvent themselves (let us not mention who is included in this pageantry; suffice it to say that with these individuals neither "great" nor "artist" should ever be associated). For actors, reinventing themselves is a euphemism for getting regular work again, and for former screen stars this means a lifeline from the direct-to-video mire. We cannot be so sure, however, of the need for such reinvention for the kingpins behind the camera. After all, even a successful director can lead a relatively anonymous private life and is often encouraged to tackle a variety of different genres. Which may explain the recent travails of the artist responsible for this film.
The plot is a simple one, so matters will be decided by casting and ancillary detail. Sprung from a nice, normal, if not very upwardly mobile family, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) love their parents like good sons do. In another display of filial affection, they shrug off their mother's unabashed preference for her own brother's success as she rants and raves with her sweet spouse sitting at the end of the same dinner table. Yes, her husband is a kind man with a little restaurant and a piece of that bland, bourgeois pie that tastes good when your taste buds haven't really had anything better, but his business speculations have invariably yielded nothing in the way of hope or profit. Thus it is in good old Uncle Howard (a diabolical Tom Wilkinson) that the family should pride itself. Most interesting is that this chiming observation doesn't really offend anyone. The father is a bit peeved of course; but as the statement is true on the base, material level, everyone including him goes along with this assumption. One almost suspects that any diversion of loyalty from her brother to her husband would leave everyone at the dinner table choking on his sprouts.
In this context we are presented with our lads' Achilles heels: Terry, a mechanic, has a very serious problem with gambling, and Ian, who may or may not be gainfully employed, is that worst kind of businessman who has his mind on the payoff and not the process. The women in their lives also indicate the spectrum whose ends the brothers occupy: while Terry will always have a plain, solid girlfriend in Kate (Sally Hawkins), Ian predictably falls for high-maintenance bombshell Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell). I say "predictably" not because Angela's shapeliness and giggling promiscuity would not attract greater men – they most certainly would – but because Ian could not possibly imagine himself with anything other than a high-maintenance bombshell. That Angela is also an actress of sorts makes the find all the more delicious (when Ian asks whether she would sleep with a director just for a part, she glibly counters that it "depends on the part, and who the director is, and how much I'd had to drink"). At the beginning of these operatics Terry wins big on a greyhound (or perhaps more properly a levrette), convincing the brothers to invest in a modest yacht named after the winning canine – and we finally glimpse a fraternal commonality. The minds of both brothers, however propelled by different stimuli and hopes, reside firmly in a dream world they could not aspire to reach, a world of pounds sterling and lots of it.
Which brings us back to good old Uncle Howard. As much as their poor father might be considered a family embarrassment, it is far more humiliating to have to borrow sports cars from your brother's garage in order to make it with, ahem, high-maintenance bombshell actresses. Even lower on the totem pole of disgrace is the revelation, made ever so casually, that the family moneybags is in grave danger of going to jail. Why would anyone apart from federal prosecutors and those few of us with moral intuition want Uncle Howard incarcerated? Well, we never really get that far. It is Howard himself who begrudgingly confesses his imminent trial, a trial, mind you, dependent upon the testimony of one of Uncle Howard's erstwhile business partners, a certain Martin Burns, immediately no friend of the family. I did say earlier that the brothers know full well that their uncle is a dirty man sullied in crimes and transgressions of likely a very indirect nature, and that is the key point of the story. Terry, a conscientious objector to everything in life except gambling, knows in an unerring Catholic way that whacking some random fellow to help out your Mafioso uncle probably ranks somewhere rather high atop the gables of sin. Ian, a handsome if suggestible jerk, likes to look at things that will result in happiness – again the payoff, not the process – and make his decisions accordingly.
Between the initial proposal and their fateful choice there is much of what may be termed hemming and hawing, with Ian doing the former and Terry dutifully bound to moaning like some condemned animal. It has been noticed by more than one critic that there obtains a claustrophobic feel to some of the shots, and indeed, something akin to a tightening noose appears to pin the brothers closer together than they probably ever have been. The beauty to such a method would be completely lost if our duo were either stone-hearted killers or idiots, although again Ian could easily be pigeonholed as the former and Terry's childish scruples only seem childish to those adults who, well, don't have any scruples at all. Cassandra's Dream puzzled critics because, I suppose, it is particularly devoid of any sense of humor. Then again, few things are less amusing than watching doomed people trying to get more comfortable in their own pillories. That it has been dismissed time and again as a morality play should tell you more about the reviewer than its contents, and while some morality plays are egregious exercises in pedantry, Allen's film can certainly not be counted among their ranks. A more conventional director would have reversed McGregor and Farrell's roles and made Uncle Howard more sympathetic so that we, the humble viewers, might feel the same sparks of temptation. As it were, Uncle Howard is as revolting a human being as you're likely to find and does not hide his contempt for anyone's existence except his own. The brothers know this, of course, but we are not being asked to ponder the depths of their knowledge. Especially of some very old and unfortunate myths.