First off, let me "'fess up" and admit that this isn't really a film review - it's a Blu-Ray review. Although Vicky Cristina Barcelona is officially released to UK cinema's this Friday (6th February), the region-free US import has been available with 'next day delivery' for the UK from movietyme for a couple of weeks now, with the film having received its Stateside theatrical release way back in August last year.
The Blu-Ray is over-priced at around £21 - especially since it's a vanilla disc with no extra's at all - but that's what you get with the falling value of the pound, and at least you're going to get a crystal clear picture if you decide to opt for the Blu-Ray over a trip to your local flea-pit. One note of caution on the picture quality front though - the film looks like it's been 'Tango-ed' because of the ridiculous colour grading that's been performed on the film, presumably to make it clear the movie takes place in a hot country.
The film's title summarises the story perfectly: it's about two friends (Vicky and Cristina) and their trip to Barcelona! Vicky is straight-laced and conventional, having a last holiday with her best friend Cristina, before she gets married to a rathr dull lawyer. Cristina is her opposite - a, promiscuous, artistic, 'free spirit' who has commitment issues and, it transpires, low self-esteem despite obvious talent. The film is essentially the story of the two girls meeting a Spanish artist Juan (Javier Bardem) who cheekily introduces himself by suggesting the two spend a weekend with him 'making love'.
Cristina is attracted, Vicky is appalled and Juan's ex-wife, who has disappeared abroad after trying to murder her husband, returns not quite sure what she thinks.
The marketing of the film has been interesting, to say the least. Despite being a Cannes Film Festival award winner, the standard film trailer (not included on the Blu-Ray but which I caught at the cinema last week) and all the advertising I've seen makes no mention of the fact that this is a film written and directed by Woody Allen. I suspect this sublimation of the writer/director is deliberate, given the extremely negative reviews his last few films have received.
As the title suggests the film sees Allen moving on from London (where his last three films were made) in favour of Spain, and the move seems to have done him the world of good. Most critics are lauding this as a 'return to form' for the elderly director with 43 films to his name, although a few are at pains to point out that this is still a long way from the director's peak a couple of decades ago.
Javier Bardem shows surprising leading man charisma, turning a character that might have seemed seedy in other's hands, into a sexy, passionate, noble type whose purpose in life seems to be to bring out the best in others. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the impact his character has on the lives of all the people he meets improves their lot, even if it means characters completely change what they have perceived to be the important things in life up to their point of meeting him. If nothing else, this film proves that Bardem's award-winning performance in No Country For Old men (aka 'the performance with the silly wig') was no one-off fluke. Given Allen's notorious difficulties in dealing with actors (he allows no rehearsal time and allows only one or two takes) the results on display here are quite astounding.
Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall give strong, totally believable and sympathetic performances as the Cristina and Vicky of the title, but when Penelope Cruz turns up in the second half of the film, as Juan's psychotic ex-wife, she totally steals the film (and not JUST for her much publicised 'lesbian kiss' scene with Johansson's character). She is at turns fiery, sensitive, bonkers and amusing, often within the same short scene.
The film does rely a little too much on narration to 'fill in the gaps', and feels particularly artificial in that you can 'hear' Woody Allen reading it even though it's actually Christopher Evan Welch performing the role. But this is a small criticism when so much about the film is so enjoyable. Allen is careful not to judge any of his characters, or even indicate which of the two widely different world views held by Vicky and Cristina are the 'right' ones, leaving the viewer free to simply fall in love with the characters and the simple story he's set up.
I found the film a subtle, beautiful piece of work - albeit one that is rather like a rather exotic, but light desert: very enjoyable at the time, but not anything that strikes you as particularly substantial or necessary when reviewed in the cold light of day. While Allen's touch is deft, and his choice of music sublimely in keeping with the film's mood and themes, for me it's the ensemble cast that steal the picture and make this a 'recommended' viewing.