DEATH DEFYING ACTS is a tragic film, combining a waste of talent, the waste of a compelling story, and betrayal on the part of its studio. The movie is directed by Gillian Armstrong who, with movies like OSCAR AND LUCINDA, proved she could tell dark and complex stories of love and obsession and set them in beautifully created period settings. DEATH DEFYING ACTS also features a talented cast, with Guy Pearce as Houdini, Catherine Zeta-Jones as his love interest Mrs McGarvie, Saoirse Ronan (of ATONEMNENT fame) as her daughter, and the wonderful Timothy Spall as Houdini's manager Mr Sugarman. Finally, the story, while fictitious, features enough of Houdini's real life to have been potentially as interesting and dark as THE PRESTIGE. Houdini was born into poverty as Erich Weisz, and through diligent training became the world's most famous and pioneering illusionist at the turn of the last century. The movie sees him on tour in Edinburgh, mourning the death of his mother and challenging spiritualists to channel her final words to him for $10,000. All this is true: Houdini was deeply affected by his mother's death and did have a side-line in exposing fraudulent mystics. Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a driven man - ambitious and able to shape the world to his will. He is also an unhappy man, never fully at ease in the high society he has now entered, regretting his early life with his large family. Indeed, I would have loved to see Pearce take the leading role in a proper Houdini biography rather than have his character shoe-horned into a cheap romance with a Scottish con-woman. Everything that the screen-writers do with Houdini's character militates against Pearce's interpration of him and their script! He's a deep sceptic and intensely private, and yet he melts at the sight of a pretty woman who reminds him of his mum. For this to really have flown the writers would've have to have made much more about the hints that Houdini was unnaturally close to his mother, but they back away from this as soon as they raise it. And they tack on this deeply sentimental ending wherein the little sprite declares that she and her mother taught Houdini about love. Yeesh. For all that DEATH DEFYING ACTS isn't a complete disaster and fans of period romances might well enjoy a viewing on DVD. Guy Pearce's central performance can't quite offset the muddle at the centre of the film. Ultimately, it falls far short of THE PRESTIGE and even a little short of THE ILLUSIONIST.
DEATH DEFYING ACTS played Toronto 2007 and was reelased earlier this year in Australia, Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Spain, Greece, Russia, Singapore, Turkey and the US. It is currently on release in the UK. It opens in New Zealand next weekend; in Argentina on October 9th and in Italy on November 14th. It is also available on Region 2 DVD.