Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

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Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.  Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a free-spirited teacher at a Scottish girls’ school during the 1930s. She encourages her young pupils to embrace romantic ideals, educating them about love and art rather than hard facts.  She instructs them in poetry and literature and femininity and regales them with tales of her lost love, fallen in Flanders. However, her controversial teaching style draws the ire of the school’s headmistress, Miss Mackey (Celia Johnson), and, as Miss Brodie becomes entangled in a love triangle with art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, who was married to Smith at the time), her behavior towards her favourite students including the lovely but treacherous Sandy (Pamela Franklin) becomes increasingly manipulative…  That’ll teach you to look at an artist like that. An interpretation of the stage version of Muriel Spark’s novel, this is a straightened-out story jettisoning some of the religious references and making composites of some characters to render the narrative easier to follow. At its heart is a barnstorming, beguiling performance by Smith as the charismatic leader of ‘gels’ hoist by her own sexual petard. Spark’s novels are cunning constructions that seem linear and obvious – until you realise the trick that has been played.  Miss Brodie truly makes people in her own image until she realises too, too late that she was never in control of a simulacrum with bad intentions. Is she being saved from herself? Are the girls being saved from her? The very conventionality of the setting juxtaposed with the fascistic politics has its own dynamic power. It’s witty, ferocious stuff, with a great cast acting their socks off in a brilliant tragicomedy.  This is a masterful technical production that is powered by emotional devastation. Written by Jay Presson Allen and directed by Ronald Neame.  Remember you are a child very far from your prime