Death Defying Acts: Film Review

Directed by: Gillian Armstrong, Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: C-

It's hard enough for magic-based films The Prestige and The Illusionist to fight mono-a-mono for moviegoers attention without Death Defying Acts, Gillian Armstrong's like-minded drama, mingling in the mix. Neil Berger's visually entrancing sepia-stained Illusionist kept a more grounded, simple potency, while Christopher Nolan's work of lavish theatrics and multifaceted themes contorts and tortures minds abound. Arguments spark over which film is superior, though many, including myself, see them as equal efforts at different capacity levels. Death Defying Acts, on the other hand, offers no competition to either. It concentrates more on the fictional "what if" romantic drama waving within the life of one of history's great magicians, Harry Houdini. With Guy Pearce in the lead, it sounds compelling; when in action, however, it's a chemistry-free, dull trick that fails at cloaking a vapid romance with a handful of weighty performances.

Death Defying Acts actually concentrates on the story of an impoverished mother-daughter psychic duo, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic) as Mary McGarvie and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) as Benji, in a cluttered township within early 1900s Scotland. They struggle nightly to pay for food and upkeep, relying on thievery and trickery amid an almost burlesque-style show to lure in and entrance their crowds into believing in their "powers". Eventually they catch word that the famous "escapologist" and magician, Houdini, (Guy Pearce, The Proposition) is offering a prize of $10,000 to any psychic who can venture into his past and re-create his deceased mother's last words. When they discover that he'll be nearby, the mother-daughter pair prepares themselves for the performance of their lives as they get swept up in Houdini's world of disbelief and disproving of false mystics.

Little Women director Gillian Armstrong's film relies heavily on and exploits the notion that magic becomes nothing more than a series of rudimentary tricks used by profiteers to fool the crowds, which becomes one of Death Defying Acts' biggest issues. When thoughts surround Harry Houdini, the man who popularized the Chinese Water Torture Cell, they instantly gravitate towards a sense of the impossible; here, he's stripped of his miraculous capacities and offers a realistic light, instead coughing up blood and removing a girdle-like support directly after one of his daring "absorb any punch" performances. Practical viewers in our modern era know that Houdini couldn't just withstand shot after shot without suffering the consequences, but painting him as little more than a marketing piece shares a lot in common with a magician revealing all his secrets to his audience -- a feeling that mixes respect and jaded deception. Pragmatism leaks into the picture, crafting an odd environment where very little can be whimsical in a dizzying world of sleight-of-hand and contortion.

Maybe that's the reason that Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones couldn't muster up any chemistry between the two of them: there's no magic in the air. Pearce's Houdini, though, is a masterful rendering; the Memento star embodies the bulky, gruff ambiance about the magician in surprising fashion, especially after spending plenty of time in the gym after his emaciated Factory Girl portrayal of Andy Warhol. But he's a supportive element here, though he steals the spotlight; Zeta-Jones, though performed with as much competency as she can muster, is miscast in the lead as the Scottish psychic con-artist / thief. She sells the performer aspects of her character well, as well as the conflicted mother, but her holistic presence as a disjointed mystic comes across as awkward -- though still carrying a hint of flavor.

As the two grow closer and Houdini begins to succumb to the Mary's alluring ways, they've got to portray a connection beyond mere acquaintance, which just doesn't work. Pearce and Zeta-Jones perform their roles with enough gravitas and seasoned essence, but they cannot cover up the fact that there's zilch in the spark department between them -- which causes the suitably photographed, subtly convincing intrigue within Death Defying Acts to dissipate into its foggy atmosphere. With this faded interest, the momentum of the picture's enveloping drama also slows to molasses levels.

This is a shame, because there's plenty to feel partial to in Armstrong's not-so-magical magic drama. Imagery becomes an intriguing element. For one, the weakening of magic's potency does have a significant effect; it makes the intrigue of potential mystic elements seem all the more mysterious, which can be seen through the image of unlocking a trunk to reveal the past, as well as the presence of blood. Likewise, several characters in the film find themselves staring out through the water torture chamber into an open abyss. It becomes a metaphor for drowning in one's own consumption, highlighted heavily by the saturation of individuals -- Houdini, Mary MacGarvie, an angel -- that swim around Benji as she struggles in the containment vessel.

Saoirse Ronan is rather good here as Benji, displaying a playful departure from her sharp-as-nails demeanor in Atonement. She adds a sense of flip-flopping childhood innocence and jadedness, which comes in handy with a film so entrenched in the persistent Where Mary McGarvie has Benji to play off of, Houdini must rely on Mr. Sugarman for a similar dynamic. Timothy Spall brings him to life in much the same manner as his roles in Sweeney Todd and The Last Samurai -- earnest and blunt, but with edges that stretch to both warm-heartedness and virulence. They help to add solid character punch underneath the growingly bland melodrama between Houdini and McGarvie.

But even steady supportive performances and ample visual conception, all crowding around a solid performance from its pseudo-lead, can't rescue Death Defying Acts from the confines of its own chemistry-less banality. It tries to find uniqueness in being a historical concoction resting between its preceding influences, but it only succeeds as a showcase for talent and not as an involving romantic drama focusing on the sparse flickers of honesty within trickery and manipulation. Chalk it up as an ineffective, admirable romantic effort and admire Armstrong's Houdini show for the scattered splashes of rich characterization that it conjures.


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