Sunday 9 August 2020

Movie Review: The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)

A fantasy, romance and comedy, The Purple Rose Of Cairo is a bittersweet celebration of movies as essential escapism.

The setting is New Jersey during the Great Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is trying to hold a job as a waitress while stuck with a useless husband in Monk (Danny Aiello). The movies are her one escape from a drudgerous life, and she studiously follows all the Hollywood gossip and watches every movie multiple times.

The latest show at the local theatre is the adventure romance The Purple Rose Of Cairo, featuring exotic foreign settings and swish Manhattan cocktail parties. Cecilia is impressed by charismatic star Gil Shepard (Jeff Daniels) playing the role of adventurer Tom Baxter. During one showing Tom notices Cecilia's dedication and walks off the screen and into the theater, insisting he wants to break free from the confines of his scripted existence and spend time with her instead. The other characters in his movie are left in limbo waiting for Tom to come back.

While Tom and Cecilia enjoy a whirlwind romance, the film's Hollywood producers and the actor Gil panic and descend on New Jersey, with Gil worried the runaway Tom will ruin his burgeoning reputation. Now Gil and Cecilia explore a romance, but Tom remains intent on winning the girl and finding a happy ending.

Writer and director Woody Allen conjures up a funny, romantic and magical story of the loving relationship between movies and their fans. In a compact 82 minutes, The Purple Rose Of Cairo captures all that cinema can represent in providing a bright spark and sometimes the only source of positivity during the worst of times.

Cecilia's marriage is a cycle of abuse and poverty and her menial job is about to crash with her next dropped dish. With the whole country drowning in an economic abyss, hope for a better future is in short supply. The dark movie theatre and films like The Purple Rose Of Cairo take her away from all that, to mysterious Egypt where a group of handsome rich friends meet dishy archeologist Tom Baxter, and they all come back to the bright lights and nightclubs of the big city. 

While all the joviality may as well be on a different planet from Cecilia's corner of New Jersey, the affordable silver screen images offer the perfect break from her misery.

Of course Hollywood needs Cecilia as much as she needs the entertainment, and once Tom steps off the screen and into her world, Allen embarks on a teasing run to outline the symbiotic relationship. Despite the mutual dependence, bridging the divide between fans in search of fantasy and characters in search of reality is no straightforward matter.

Allen cleverly introduces the complication of actor Gil protecting his reputation from his own creation. An unlikely love triangle takes shape, but when one lover is a fictional character and another is a professional actor pursuing stardom, the heartache risk is substantial.

But in the meantime the humour is persistent, most of it drawn from the stranded characters up on the screen, flummoxed by one of their own walking into the real world and with nothing to do except await his return. Meanwhile Tom Baxter knows only what his character knows, and his naive view of the world includes expecting a fade-out after kissing Cecilia.

And in the central role of Cecilia, Mia Farrow is elegantly soulful, carrying the weight of a depressed nation on her slender shoulders. Farrow sells the film's wild premise with ease, mixing incredulous fun with starstruck fandom while Cecilia's struggle in a grim and inescapable real world casts a long shadow.

Jeff Daniels is engaging in a dual role as an actor and his character. The supporting cast includes Van Johnson as one of the frustrated on-screen co-stars, and Dianne Wiest as a local tart who gets to teach the clueless Tom about brothels.

The Purple Rose Of Cairo is a mischievous love letter to a flicker of light connecting reality with fantasy, sustaining dreams through the darkness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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