×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Death Defying Acts

Film might benefit from whatever appetite last year's magic pics whet, but it lacks their revenge-driven mystery hooks.

With:
Harry Houdini - Guy Pearce Mary McGarvie - Catherine Zeta-Jones Mr. Sugarman - Timothy Spall Benji - Saoirse Ronan

Last year’s “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige” located an audience for costume dramas revolving around stage sleight-of-hand and gimmicky suspense narratives, rather than the usual drawing-room or court intrigue. “Death Defying Acts” might benefit from whatever appetite those pics whet, but it lacks their revenge-driven mystery hooks, offering instead romping and romance that feel half-baked. Gillian Armstrong-directed pic starring Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a lady out to snare him is a handsome contraption that’s never very engaging, let alone convincing. Theatrical returns look to be just fair, with improved prospects in ancillary.

Sounding intriguing enough in concept, “Death” misses the mark onscreen in a way adaptations of deceptively cinematic novels often do. Yet it’s an original script — one that, for long in its development history (it was written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward), didn’t involve Houdini at all, which may explain why the mix of a real-life legend and fictive personnel never quite gels. The former feels diminished and the latter contrived, neither lifting off the page into any kind of real dramatic life.

Zeta-Jones plays Mary McGarvie, a beauteous con artist in 1926 Edinburgh who uses cheating tactics and tween daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) to fake a music-hall psychic act. When news hits that Houdini is coming to town with a psychic challenge — $10,000 goes to whoever can channel his beloved late mother’s last words — Mary sets her sights on the prize. This, despite Houdini’s well-known skill at exposing all manner of phony supernatural quacks and phenomena.

Benji manages to meet Houdini first, sneaking into a dressing room, to his amusement, if not that of grumbling manager Mr. Sugarman (Timothy Spall). When Benji introduces mum, Houdini declares she might be “the one,” for no apparent reason beyond her being way sexier than the alleged local mediums previously interviewed.

Now ensconced in luxury digs adjoining the escape artist’s own, Mary and Benji try to spy their way into finding out Ma Houdini’s final utterances before the public challenge is staged for an audience of skeptical journalists and scientists. But the Yank himself appears more interested in romancing the distinctly husband-free Mrs. McGarvie, irking Sugarman, who figures her for a gold-digger.

By midpoint, the narrative hinges more on the supposed amour fou developing between Houdini and Mary than on real or faked communication with the dead or other ostensibly key plot elements that become more or less irrelevant. Alas, that center doesn’t hold: There’s scant chemistry between the leads, and it isn’t credibly written into their characters, either. Why does suspicious, hard-to-impress Houdini become smitten so fast with this Scottish vamp? Don’t beautiful women throw themselves at the virile, globe-trotting celebrity all the time?

Result is a brisk, well-produced pic that lacks depth; nor does it provide the fun of deliberate, flamboyant one-dimensionality. There’s no real tension, nothing specific to root for.

Pearce gets to show off a fearsomely fit form, Zeta-Jones has fun with her psychic act, and both do their accents well. But star quality alone can’t salvage two disagreeable, bossy characters who hardly seem made for each other. Dressed in boy’s clothes for no apparent purpose (save that it’s de rigeur now for young girl heroines to be tomboys), Ronan (of “Atonement” and the forthcoming “Lovely Bones”) is plucky and precocious to the brink of annoyance. Spall punches clock, and subsidiary roles are mere bit parts.

If pic offers little of substance, its packaging can’t be faulted: Lensing, production design and costuming are all very attractive. Cezary Skubiszewski’s score aims to heighten character by mixing in klezmer-style (for Houdini) and Scottish folk (Mary) motifs.

One of the best Aussie directors of her generation, Armstrong may be incapable of making a graceless film. But coming after “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Charlotte Gray,” “Death Defying Acts” underlines how long it’s been since she’s had a project that fit just right.

Death Defying Acts

U.K.-Australia

Production: A Weinstein Co. release (in U.S.) of a Film Finance Corp. Australia (Australia)/BBC Films, U.K. Film Council (U.K.)/Myriad Pictures (Australia) presentation, in association with the New South Wales Film and Television Office, of a MacGowan Lupovitz Nasatir Films (Australia)/Zephyr Films (U.K.) production. Produced by Chris Curling,Marian MacGowan. Executive producers, Dan Lupovitz, David M. Thompson, Kirk D'Amico, Marcia Nasatir, Lucas Foster. Co-producers, Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Screenplay, Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward.

Crew: Camera (color), Haris Zambarloukos; editor, Nicholas Beauman; music, Cezary Skubiszewski; production designer, Gemma Jackson; art directors, Paul Inglis, Anja Muller; set decorator, Anna Lynch Robinson; costume designer, Susannah Buxton; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrew Plain; assistant director, Guy Heeley; casting, Gail Stevens. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2007. Running time: 96 MIN.

With: Harry Houdini - Guy Pearce Mary McGarvie - Catherine Zeta-Jones Mr. Sugarman - Timothy Spall Benji - Saoirse Ronan

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Alien' at 40: Ridley Scott Explains Why 'You Don't Show the Monster Too Many Times'

    It’s difficult to imagine Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” without the clear-minded, strong presence of Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the captain of the ill-fated Nostromo. But originally, the actor turned down “Alien,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 25, though he thought Dan O’Bannon’s script read well. “There was nobody involved at the time [...]

  • The Poison Rose

    Film Review: 'The Poison Rose'

    It is 1978 in the City of Angels and the hard-drinking washed-up sleuth Carson Phillips is having another boozy day through its atmospheric streets. There is a hint of innate coolness and self-deprecation in his elongated voiceover intro — you might even briefly mistake Carson, played by a one-note John Travolta, for a Philip Marlowe [...]

  • 'Chambre 212' Review: A Comedy More

    Cannes Film Review: 'Chambre 212'

    Most of us, in our romantic lives, meditate here and there on the other roads we might have traveled, and movies are uniquely equipped to channel those alternate-universe-of-love possibilities. That’s the idea at the (broken) heart of “Casablanca.” And the fantasy of getting to see the turns your life didn’t take play out right in [...]

  • Zach Galifianakis Jerry Seinfeld Netflix

    Film News Roundup: Zach Galifianakis' 'Between Two Ferns: The Movie' Coming to Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is unveiled, “Friedkin Uncut” gets a fall release and Sony Classics buys “The Traitor” at Cannes. MOVIE RELEASES Netflix has set a Sept. 20 release date for Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” based on his 11-year-old talk show. Galifianakis made the announcement during [...]

  • Romanian Crime-Thriller 'The Whistlers' Bought for

    Romanian Crime-Thriller 'The Whistlers' Bought for North America

    Magnolia Pictures has bought North American rights to the Romanian crime thriller “The Whistlers” following its premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, the film stars Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agustí Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, Julieta Szonyi and George Pisterneanu. Magnolia is eyeing a theatrical [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content