On a tour of Britain in 1926, Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) enters into a passionate affair with a psychic out to con him.On a tour of Britain in 1926, Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) enters into a passionate affair with a psychic out to con him.On a tour of Britain in 1926, Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) enters into a passionate affair with a psychic out to con him.
The film tells the story of mega-famous magician and trickster Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce - Memento). He's arrived on Britain as part of one of his tours - he's looking for a magician or psychic that can be able to guess - or "see" - the last words his mother uttered before dying. You see, this is all part of a scientific experiment he wishes to conduct. Something unexpected happens the moment he arrives at Scotland, though - he falls in love with psychic Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose daughter and "apprentice", Benji (Saoirse Ronan) approached to accept his scientific challenge.
If that small plot summary sounded simplistic, that's because it is. The movie is not particularly ambitious, and that's maybe why I was left overwhelmed by it - there's so much to say about a figure as famous and recognizable as Houdini, and the film decides to focus on something decidedly dull. The film actually starts with some promise - I liked Ronan's voice-over, and it almost seemed as if the film was to focus on something interesting. But then, of course, I started to discover this was going to be a romance - a very clichéd, underdeveloped romance, at that - and I shuddered.
If there's a reason why the film is not bad, it's because of some solid performances. Guy Pearce is one of the most underrated actors working today - see his work in the aforementioned Memento if you don't believe me - and although the screenplay doesn't present a particularly three-dimensional version of Houdini, he makes him believable and humane. Catherine Zeta Jones is pretty good too, sporting a credible Scottish accent (!) and trying to portray Mary as a sympathetic figure despite the fact that the writers' don't seem to like the character. Timothy Spall - as Houdini's manager - is great as always, but the real standout is Saoirse Ronan. (Who was also really amazing in Atonement, by the way.) It's not only that she portrays the most developed, interesting and fun character, it's also that she brings it to life - Pearce and Zeta Jones' performances are precisely that (performances) but Ronan seems to be inhabiting her character, definitely putting a lot of passion into a project that arguably doesn't deserve that much.
Despite the fact that Death Defying Acts is already available on DVD and Blu-Ray in most countries, I got to see it in theatres. I can't say I regret having paid for this particularly theatrical viewing experience, but I won't enthusiastically recommend the movie either. The screenplay, while not terrible, is pretty ordinary, and the direction is all right. (Cinematography is gorgeous, though, and the score is beautiful.) Performances - especially Ronan's - are what save the film from entering the realm of mediocrity, but if you really want to watch a magician's flick, I'd recommend either the Illusionist or The Prestige.
- May 4, 2009