For Woody Allen fans, watching his recent films has been like prising your eyes open after an earthquake. Will everything be just as it once was? Or will it look like ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, his 2007 low, starring Colin Farrell as a London mechanic? For now we can breathe a sigh of relief. ‘Blue Jasmine’ is Allen’s strongest film overall since ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’, but you have to dig deep in the New Yorker’s back catalogue to find a single performance as affecting and well-judged as the one Cate Blanchett delivers.
Her brittle, shivery Jasmine is a Manhattan socialite whose world crumbles after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme run by her bigger-than-life fraudster husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Broke, with nowhere else to go, Jasmine moves in with her down-to-earth sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As she tries to get back on her feet, Allen gives us flashbacks to the high life she once shared with Hal in New York.
Blanchett’s Jasmine slips between ingratiating and alienating. Is she a victim? Or the architect of her own demise? Should we care about how damaged she is? Or worry more about the damage she might inflict on others, including her heart-of-gold sister and the new man in her life (Peter Sarsgaard)? Or are the interests of everyone else in this tale equally self-serving?
One of the most pleasing things about ‘Blue Jasmine’ is that it feels truly knotty and never obvious in how it unfolds. It has a lightness of touch and a seriousness of purpose. Yes, Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ hangs over Allen’s portrayal of these sisters, their men and their pasts, and yes, some of those men are clunky working-class stereotypes. But mostly this is surprising and refreshing.
Some of Allen’s strongest films – such as 1978’s ‘Interiors’ and 1988’s ‘Another Woman’ – have put the gags on hold and found richness in troubled women. ‘Jasmine’ doesn’t steer clear of comedy, but its best humour is of the black, squirming sort, such as when Jasmine’s new dentist boss comes on to her (‘Have you ever got high on nitrous oxide?’). Or when, in the good old days, Ginger and her then-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), a builder, pay Jasmine and Hal an excruciating visit at their luxury home. But there’s no disguising the trauma of its final shot and the interest at its heart: a sad woman in freefall.