During Harry Houdini's tour of Britain in 1926, the master escapologist enters into a passionate affair with a Scottish psychic. The psychic and her daughter attempt to con Houdini during a highly publicized séance to contact his mother whose death has haunted him for many years. However all does not go to plan... Written by
In the scene when Harry is dressing (shortly after his arrival in his Edinburgh hotel room) he starts to put on his braces (suspenders). In one shot they are partially unfastened but in the next shot (a close-up) they are securely fastened. See more »
[with Scottish accent]
When I was very small, I had a gift. I saw things other folk did nae see. It was like looking into deep water and seein' things on the other side. As I grew up, the gift vanished, just like my mam said it would. And I saw the world as it really was - with all its sweet lies and trickery. The the great Houdini came into our lives, and changed everything forever.
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A Satisfying Mixture of Fact Embellished with Fiction
Gillian Armstrong makes fine movies: she is a director who knows how to tell stories and enhance what appears on the surface to be reality with a healthy dose of fantasy. Her sense of pacing and image creation adds substance to her tales that sometimes border on bizarre.
DEATH DEFYING ACTS uses the character of Harry Houdini as the stimulus of to tell a story about the folk of Edinburgh, Scotland at a time when stage shows were embraced much the way America was using vaudeville - an escape from the rather dreary state of living to a world of entertainment and love of magic. Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) survive in Edinburgh by picking pockets not merely for cash but for information to use in their act in the little theaters. Mary does exotic dances then uses her 'gifts' to see into the 'other world' of people in the audience ( Benji does the investigative work and is the prompter for the séance like acts Mary performs). Their idol is Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) and when they learn Houdini is coming to Edinburgh to 'perform', they discover Houdini is promising $10,000 to anyone who can prove they have the ability to look into the future (or past). Houdini's manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) arranges Houdini's water tank escape acts and other acts of 'magic', and when Mary and Benji arrange to meet Houdini, Sugarman is aware they are charlatans. How Mary and Benji work their way into Houdini's belief system and love life with their con game forms the meat of the sparing.
The atmosphere of the film is well captured by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos who understands who to balance the mire of the streets of 1926 Edinburgh with the gorgeous fantasies used during Houdini's escape acts. The musical score by Cezary Skubiszewski is a terrific mixture of Scottish tunes and instruments with solid melodramatic mood music. Pearce, Zeta-Jones, Spall and Ronan turn in excellent performances. This is an unjustly overlooked film that, while not being a masterpiece, serves up a fine story well told. Grady Harp
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