on 31 January 2006
The Purple Rose of Cairo shows us just how vital a filmmaker Woody Allen is when removed from the bumbling, neurotic caricature, who often overwhelms the broader aspects of his work. Along with Love and Death, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Bullets Over Broadway, The Purple Rose... is a bona-fide masterpiece; one of the greatest American films of the last fifty years, and further proof (as if it were needed?) that Allen is a filmmaker equal to (if not greater than) the more celebrated likes of Coppola, Spielberg, Kubrick, Scorsese, et al. Like those films aforementioned, Purple Rose demonstrates that Allen can take on board the influence of European cinema and combine it with a style of his own, creating a film that relies heavily on character and conversation, and yet, is totally enjoyable and occasionally very funny.
The script is really one of Allen's best, combining a great and imaginative story with intelligent characters and believable scenarios... while the whole thing is made just that little more enchanting through the evocative recreation of depression era New Jersey, and the mannered, though no less impressive directorial flourishes from Allen. The cast is perfect too, managing to bring Allen's world to life, as well as presenting us with a believable emotional centre on which the director can navigate the more elaborate elements of the plot. Farrow has never been better as the put-upon dreamer swept up in her love of cinema, and, in particular, her dashing "leading man in the making" Gil Shepherd. As a result, the entire film, from almost the first frame to the last, can be seen as a treatise on the idea of escape and escapism, and how these ideas correlate with Farrow's character Cecilia, who, whilst attempting to escape from her life of drudgery, work and her cheating husband, becomes infatuated with Shepherd's latest film (also called The Purple Rose of Cairo) and his character Tom Baxter, a fearless adventurer cast adrift in the complicated world of New York's glittering social milieu.
Allen's script, like his later film Crimes and Misdemeanours, is full of self-reference and contains many different layers that compliment the more obvious elements of the script perfectly. For example, Allen plays with the idea of mirroring; having a character within the film (within the film) brought out of their natural habitat, and into a world that is completely alien. This is again referenced later when the same character (Tom Baxter) is brought out of that environment for a second time and dragged into the real world. Later, Cecilia is taken back into the film (within the film) on an adventure that mirrors the real life adventure the pair had previously been caught up in, before the third component of the story (Gil) is brought into the world of Cecilia... a place that is completely alien to his world of mansions, film premieres and celebrity parties!! These elements might sound confusing within the context of a review, however, the way Allen so casually places them within the plot is amazing. He never lets his ideas dwarf the story at hand, keeping the focus on the characters, whilst, simultaneously, playing a number of subtle games around them.
The concept of fictional characters invading the world of the living (and vice-versa) is never fully explained, so really, it requires a great leap of faith and a little suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience to really buy into the 'deeper' aspects of the film. As a result, I think the film can be interpreted on two different levels... either the whole thing is just a series of unexplainable phenomenon, making The Purple Rose of Cairo a fantasy film as enchanting as Who Framed Roger Rabbit or E.T., or the whole thing can be seen as a figment of Cecilia's imagination. The film ends in such a way that Allen seems to be suggesting that none of these events ever took place... creating a circular narrative that makes it easy for us to see the journey that the character has (supposedly) undertaken to be completely redundant; something that has merely destroyed her faith in the world more so than before, and perhaps, left her even more desperate to experience the warming glow and friendly familiarity of the nearest cinema screen.
As well as Farrow in the lead, there is fine support from Jeff Daniels as the exuberant character Tom Baxter and his bemused and frantic cinematic creator Gil - who manages to give the film a sense of heart, but also a bitter undercurrent - as well as small roles for Danny Aiello (as Cecilia's bullying husband Monk) and Allen regular Diane Wiest (as a local prostitute who helps Tom find his feet in the real world). There's also some nice cameos from Edward Herrmann, Van Johnson, Zoë Caldwell and Milo O'Shea as some of Tom's bewildered supporting characters, left to sit and (literally) chew the scenery, as they find themselves without their pivotal lead player. The ending might be a little too downbeat for some... not wanting to give too much away, but Alan does have a tendency to leave his characters high and dry, sacrificing the feel good factor in favour of some important life lessons, and the intrusion of real-life's cynical streak.
Regardless, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a fantastic film... one that draws you in with it's subtle and believable characterisations and eventually takes you completely by surprise with the deep emotional resonance of the plot. For me, it's one of Allen's masterpieces, and is proof that (along with Bullets Over Broadway) that he doesn't need to be in the film to deliver solid entertainment. It's certainly not as light and as frivolous as say, Love and Death, Annie Hall or Broadway Danny Rose, but it's lighter than the likes of Interiors, Another Woman and Manhattan. As a result, it'll probably appeal to the kind of people who don't normally appreciate Allen's particular blend of cinema, but really, regardless of personal tastes, this is a fantastic film... one that probably deserves to be worshipped alongside the likes of The Godfather, Taxi Driver or anything that Spielberg has directed since Jaws.