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:: Death Defying Acts

One good turn deserves another…2007 had certainly been a magical year at the movies, at least in thematic terms, with a new breed of films emerging that have wrested the notion of magic and magicians from their PG stronghold in the fantasy genre into an altogether darker and more grown-up sphere.

The Prestige gave us an elegant and provocative parable on the nature of illusion and reality, and was followed swiftly by The Illusionist’s historical take on the relationship between power and artifice in magic and politics. Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts ventures once again into similar territory, in a film exploring the figure of legendary escapologist and showman Harry Houdini.

Although taking its basis in reality, the film is not unduly tied to historical fact, preferring instead to take a more speculative ‘What if?’ approach to history. Houdini (Guy Pearce) arrives in Edinburgh on his world tour, announcing a $10,000 reward to any psychic who can contact his dead mother and reveal her dying words. Enter Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her young daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), performers in a charlatan vaudeville act, who determine to gain the reward by any means possible. Unfortunately for Mary getting closer to her goal also entails getting closer to Harry himself, and as the critical moment approaches she is forced to confront the perennial dilemma: love or money?

Shot on location in Edinburgh and London, the film endows its period setting and magical themes with all possible atmospheric accessories; foggily obscured vistas, shadowy graveyards, and lavishly furnished interiors all contribute to the distinctive (if at times overdone) visual tone of the film, and stylistically underline its central message: appearance is everything.

The wirily powerful and ever-inscrutable Guy Pearce is ideally cast as Houdini, whose enigmatic appeal rests on the audience’s inability to distinguish between the man and the showman, and whose character is dominated by the same conflict. Pearce makes much of the physical and emotional paradoxes of the man, playing the invulnerable and supremely controlled stage persona of Houdini off against the emotional fragility of Harry, the all too human figure behind the act.

Catherine Zeta-Jones’ provides capable support as Mary, the loveable rogue of the piece, as endowed with Celtic blarney as she is Celtic charms. Surprisingly however the central romance forms one the weakest elements of the film, never ceasing to feel contrived and failing to generate any real heat between the two leads. Amply compensating for this weakness is a standout performance by twelve-year-old Saoirse Ronan, in whose hands the crucial figure of Benji emerges as an intriguingly layered and captivating tomboy, wise beyond her years.

While Death Defying Acts is an accomplished and enjoyable period drama it fails ultimately to move beyond this. Both The Prestige and The Illusionist saw ideas of magic and illusion transcend their literal interpretations, becoming ciphers for very real and current issues of art and politics. Here however we remain almost perversely rooted in the literal and historical, in a work whose carefully crafted execution of cinematic sleight-of-hand cannot fail to distract its audience from its essential lack of substance.