You're going to see a lot of bad reviews of Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, as I did before I went to see it. But having gone in with lowered expectations, I came out thrilled. I liked Cassandra's Dream a great deal. I went back and looked at some of the reviews, and I couldn't see how what they said related to the film. It seemed that most of the bad reviews were directed at Allen himself, his habits and ideas, or perhaps an expectation of Allen, or an expectation of the crime genre, rather than the film itself. This leads to a complex discussion of Allen's career, which goes much deeper than I'll ever have room for here. But suffice it to say that Allen has had a far more difficult time pleasing moviegoers than he did before he broke up with Mia Farrow and married Soon-Yi Previn.

I am a longtime fan, and in the past I have willingly put myself in the position of defending Allen's work even when there wasn't much to defend. I have written rave reviews only to revisit the films later and realize that I may have been wrong. But I believe he has tried harder, and tried more different kinds of things, in recent years than he did when he was younger and far more popular. I also believe that in the future, Allen's work, like Ozu's or Fassbinder's, may make up a far more coherent whole than it will a collection of individual masterpieces. That said, Cassandra's Dream is the third of Allen's British series. It ignores the previous entry, Scoop (2006), and harkens back to Match Point(2005), which most critics considered a successful comeback and a reinvigoration for Allen. It also revisits the themes that bubbled through Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), wondering not how one accomplishes a crime but how one deals with the concept of having accomplished a crime.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play working class London brothers; some critics have complained -- ludicrously -- that because McGregor is Scottish and Farrell is Irish they can't pull off the job. But their brotherly bond comes through strongly and very effectively. They have little in common, but they see each other almost every day, and certainly every Sunday for lunch, where they listen to their mother (Clare Higgins) berate their poor, unsuccessful father (John Benfield). At the same time, she glorifies her brother Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a huge success in the plastic surgery business. Considering how long this might have gone on, it's no wonder that Ian (McGregor) has materialistic leanings. He longs to climb out of his dead-end job with his father and move onto bigger things. One of those things comes along in the form of glamorous London actress Angela Stark (dazzling newcomer Hayley Atwell). He desperately wants to start investing in a hotel deal so that he can make his own money and impress her.

Brother Terry (Farrell) already has a steady girl, Kate (Sally Hawkins, from Mike Leigh's All or Nothing), and works as a mechanic. (He loans fancy cars to Ian to help impress Angela.) Terry gets his kicks by drinking and gambling, playing hard when a good streak comes on. He enters a high-stakes poker game and comes away with 30,000 pounds, but loses it all back the next night, plus another 60. No one can help the brothers except for Uncle Howard, who happens to be in town. He agrees to pony up the cash, but asks the boys for a favor. One of his business associates, Martin Burns (Phil Davis) is about to come forward with damaging testimony, and needs to be eliminated. Allen shoots this bombshell sequence -- with no less a cinematographer than Vilmos Zsigmond -- as the three men duck out of a rainstorm and underneath a huge tree with drooping limbs. The camera rotates around the tree, peeking through the branches, and the three men's body language likewise takes on a plantlike quality, bending and drooping and pointing as the news sinks in.

The crime itself is fairly simple and not particularly imaginative; the most notable detail is the use of a wooden gun that can be burned afterward. Allen is more interested in the emotional energy spent building up to the job -- including the harsh blow of a false alarm -- and the even more overwhelming energy it takes to shrug off the job once it's done. Terry goes to pieces, shaking, sweating, drinking ever harder and waking up at night with a start. Ian handles their deed with quite a bit more confidence, perhaps more aware of the rewards than the path he chose to get them. But these are by no means cut and dried characterizations. Each man has his alternating moments of calm and panic. Both Farrell and McGregor turn in spectacular performances in this regard; all of the film's tension comes directly through them, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire ride. But Wilkinson manages to top them; he's the first actor I've ever seen who could bend Allen's dialogue to his own will.

Speaking of that, when I watched Melinda and Melinda (2005) a second time, I heard that dialogue ever so clearly, overwritten and awkward, and it dampened my admiration for that film. I went into Cassandra's Dream actually listening, waiting for lurches in the dialogue, but they never came. Either Allen toned down his prose or the actors stepped up to it and tackled it. Allen's title comes through clearly, however, and it's a good one. It's the name of a lucky, winning dog that nets Terry a small windfall. That money allows Terry and Ian to buy a sailboat together; the sailboat figures during the carefree beginning of the story as well as the tense climax. "It's just a small boat," Ian explains to Angela's friends, adding that there's barely enough room to sleep on it. Likewise, Cassandra's Dream is a trim little vessel, not a huge, luxurious cruise ship, and regardless of what you think of it, I doubt there'll be much sleeping.