Woody Allen has directed a film almost every year since 1966. His work includes beloved classics such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, but the characters often seem to live in a bubble where they angst endlessly about their love lives without ever needing to work or think about money. Blue Jasmine punctures that bubble, by telling the story of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a former Manhattan socialite whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin)’s fantastic wealth turned out to come from fraud of Bernard Madoff proportions. Now destitute and reliant on little white pills and a permanently-clutched martini glass, Jasmine moves to San Francisco to live indefinitely with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a struggling single mother with little space for Jasmine and less in common with her.
What could be morality tale of the 1% getting their comeuppance is leant sympathy and depth by Blanchett, who does an astonishing job of making a deeply unpleasant character understandable and even sympathetic. From the opening scene, where Jasmine spills her entire life story to a politely repelled old woman she meets on a plane, she is simply unable to stop talking, constantly reaching out to others for an intimacy they can’t give her. Yet her many monologues are poignantly obvious self-delusion, attempts to preserve a facade of gentility that eventually crumble to reveal the despair beneath. Depictions of mental illness – we soon learn that Jasmine has suffered a breakdown and doesn’t seem to be recovering – in films are often melodramatic or tic-laden, but Blanchett’s portrayal is subtle and convincing. She never drops Jasmine’s quavering voice, with its weird trace of a Southern accent, and grief-distorted face, and the detailed physicality helps make Jasmine seem real and convincing. Blanchett should start picking out her dress for the red carpet at next year’s Oscars – her fantastic performance is guaranteed a nomination and it will be one of those dubious Academy verdicts if she doesn’t win.
Since Blanchett takes over the whole film rather as Jasmine tends to be a parasitic growth on the lives of those around her, the other actors inevitably fade into the background a bit. But it’s a tribute to the skills of the supporting cast that all the characters still feel like they have a full life story behind them. Sally Hawkins does a particularly good job of developing Ginger as a necessary foil to Jasmine – a far less glamorous and more self-sacrificing character, but one with just as many problems and worries, particularly her relationship with her down-to-earth boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), whose mutual animosity with Jasmine exposes a darker side to his character.
If much of the plot and characters seem borrowed from A Streetcar Named Desire, the style is Allen’s own. The screenplay is full of his articulate but real-sounding dialogue, such as Jasmine’s declaration “Never trust doctors. Doctors put both my parents in early graves.” There are a few minor flaws – having both the sisters meet what seems like their dream man at the same party feels a bit too schematic, and the many flashbacks to Jasmine’s life with Hal are slightly less compelling than the present-day storyline, although they do deliver a terrifically unexpected final revelation. Blue Jasmine doesn’t have the comedy many Allen fans expect, apart from the squirm-inducingly funny scenes with Michael Stuhlbarg as Jasmine’s creepy dentist boss. But it’s a treat to see a film that presents some unpalatable, grown-up truths: that everyone is complex and flawed, that happiness is hard to find and keep in a financially and emotionally pitiless world and that there are no easy solutions to people’s problems.