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Canada/USA/United Kingdom 2003
Directed by
Richard Kwietniowski
104 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Owning Mahowny

Synopsis: Mild mannered bank employee Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a huge gambling problem, which he refuses to acknowledge. As his embezzlement of the bank deepens to fund larger bets, so his relationship with Belinda (Minnie Driver) reaches crisis point, while smarmy casino boss Victor Foss (John Hurt) pulls out all stops to divest Mahowny of his money.

There are two remarkable things about this film: firstly is that it is based upon a true story, and secondly the performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I guess the first part is not so exceptional but Hoffman's performance is outstanding

The film opens with a post-arrest Dan in a therapy session and the lines"  "Everyone has three lives - a public life, a private life and a secret life".  The way in which Hoffman portrays these three lives is seamlessly interwoven into a compelling whole. Our opening impressions of him are of a confident young fellow, well-regarded by his fellow colleagues. As we learn of his secret passion and see him begin to unravel we find ourselves at once fascinated and horrified by his behaviour.

When presented with the script, the film's producers said they could think of no other actor to play the role. I for one have been a rabid fan of Hoffman's work over the years. I marvelled at his support performances in Almost Famous, Flawless, and Happiness, and always wondered why an actor of his calibre didn't have a big juicy leading role. As Dan Mahowny he has it,and rises totally to the occasion. He is the obsessed doomed man, totally at the mercy of his addiction. Every gesture, expression and nuance are the hallmarks of a truly dedicated and thorough actor while the splendid close-up camera work thrusts his every heart-stopping emotion and desperate determination in our face.

In a sterling performance, John Hurt, appears in what is for him an unusual role as the ruthless casino boss, Minnie Driver is also strong as Dan's haplessly devoted girlfriend as is Maury Chakin as a sleazy illegal bookie.

Performances aside, the most striking aspect of this film is its telling approach to the issue of gambling. The focus of the film is the addiction and the devastating abyss to which it leads rather than the highs and lows of  winning or losing, which we barely see. There are none of the usual filmic attempts to show it up as some sort of glamorous pursuit; rather it is presented in such an unromanticised and intensely scrutinising fashion that its anti-gambling message will sink in far more than any institutionalised proselytising could ever achieve. 

The film looks great, with a strong visual contrast between the hallowed financial halls of banking with their expensive balustrades and marble floors, and the tawdry imitation world of casinos with their garish illusion of wealth, an illusion that, should you have it, will certainly be shattered after sweating through this film.




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