Death Defying Acts

2008-06-20 15:41
What it's about:

Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and her young daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), scrape together a living telling fortunes in a sideshow act in Scotland. She hears of the famous Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) touring Britain and decides to enter his psychic challenge, in which she has to contact his dead mother to find out her last words. Houdini is intrigued, and soon they begin a relationship. Even though Mary planned to con him out of the prize money for the challenge, she unexpectedly develops feelings for him.

What we thought of it:

If you think of Harry Houdini in the movies you're probably thinking of a guy dislocating his shoulder to escape a straightjacket while suspended over a pit of crocodiles. Death Defying Acts isn't that movie – it's a BBC produced period romance with a few daring escapes thrown in for pep. It's not bad for what it is, but associating it with The Prestige (2007) and The Illusionist (2006) is simply the work of misleading marketeers.

Mary McGarvie is a character straight out of a romantic novel – she's tough and wily, but also vulnerable and good hearted. Benji is rather the Dickensian heroin – a plucky lass who dresses like a boy and helps her mother with her stage act. Saoirse Ronan gives a great performance, conveying a great uncertainty beneath her confident demeanor, as well as serving as the narrator. Guy Pearce does another admirable job, playing Houdini like the gentleman salesman, a man so sure in his own abilities he is unable to see that his fears rule his entire life.

The problem with all the characters, well defined and played as they are, is that they fit rather too comfortably into this all-too-charming romance, and it is only through Benji's narration that her personality truly comes across, making the others seem far too neatly tailored to be truly credible.

Director Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Gray [2001], Little Women [1994]), is no stranger to costume dramas and the film unfolds languidly, even when it could have used a bit of tension. The scenery and look of old Scotland are beautifully portrayed, but never reach The Prestige's heights of visual flare, and in parts just end up looking plain.

Death Defying Acts is a decent enough film and will certainly hit the spot if you're after a historically tinged romance with something a little different. Very little time is given to Houdini's exploits and the story doesn't shed that much light on his character either. Given the subject matter and capable cast I expected something spectacular, but merely got an adequate couple of hours of entertainment.

- Ivan Sadler

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A sideshow fortune teller and her young daughter try to con Harry Houdini out of $10 000 by entering his psychic challenge and uncovering his dead mother's last words.

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