Stanley Townsend (Colin Firth) is a famous magician who dresses up as a mystical Chinese man, Wei Ling Soo. His magician friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) introduces him to a young medium Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who he is convinced is a fake and yet he can’t prove it. As Stanley tries to debunk Sophie, he starts to fall under her spell and wonders whether there is such thing as a spirit world.
This could all be quite sickly but actually it’s quite charming. Of course some people will naturally get offended at the idea of Colin Firth dressing up as Chinese but it’s an historical fantasy set in an era completely different from now. There’s no racist comedy, ironically unlike most Hollywood films that make racist jokes with Asian actors.
Emma Stone starts off as a bit irritating but she grows on you throughout the film. She is optimistic and sunny without being saccharine. Carrying off a story about the power of optimism and the importance of having faith in something is tricky when most films go for the easy option of cynicism, but the witty script and the lightness with which everybody plays their part means it doesn’t grate.
As for the central romance, surprisingly I didn’t find it icky- although when Stanley says ‘There’s something between me and Sophie’, I couldn’t help saying ‘About thirty years’ (which is good going for a Woody Allen film). It’s all very chaste and tasteful; Firth’s performance is reminiscent of Darcy and his charm dispels the potential seediness of the romance. The relationship between Stanley and Sophie is more of a friendship/mutual respect.
Critics may have preferred the more cerebral Midnight in Paris but Magic in The Moonlight completely surrenders to the fairy-tale whimsy and is all the better for that.