Death Defying Acts Movie Review
A fanciful tale focusing on the final days in the life of famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini - who died eerily on Halloween in 1926 - Death Defying Acts is noted for a bit of hide and seek illusion itself. The original script, directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Little Women), didn't include Houdini, whose entry into the story qualifies as an additional mystery to a tale teeming with the inexplicable. And the Scottish spiritualist and con artist Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), with whom the smitten married magician crosses paths, apparently never existed.
But at least they got it right this time concerning the early superstar performer's demise. Which was not by suffocating in an oversized fishbowl, as Tony Curtis' 1953 incarnation misleadingly asserted, but rather fatal blows - possibly exacerbating existing appendicitis - to his abdomen, inflicted pain which the man obsessively convinced with his own invincibility, eagerly invited from the public.
Guy Pearce is Houdini in Death Defying Acts, a man so consumed with his own celebrity worldwide, that he imagines he can transcend his own mortality by pushing his brand of death defying acts ever further. This emboldened state of affairs also brings him to believe that he can break through to the land of the dead and communicate with his late mother, with whom he seems to have had an unhealthy emotional dependence. Houdini has also perpetrated a different kind of tricksterism on the public (not in the movie), claiming to be a typical Middle American from Appleton, Wisconsin, but actually a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and son of a rabbi, and whose name was really Ehrich Weiss.
The early 20th century at the height of Houdini's fame, was also a time of religious turmoil, as science was making enormous strides and threatening the comforting security of traditional spiritual beliefs. And as an increasingly disoriented public clung to threatened concepts, the aura of supernaturalism and mysticism surrounding Houdini was historically ripe for worshipful mass embrace.
But Death Defying Acts is less concerned with social context, than Houdini's own emotional vulnerability beneath the superhuman posturing. When con artists Mary and her feisty daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan, who impressed with her acclaimed performance in Atonement) - a collaborative local Edinburgh psychic burlesque stage act - turn up to compete for a lucrative reward Houdini has offered for whomever can summon his mother back to life at a seance, Houdini is utterly charmed by this enchantress, and quite forgetting about his wife back home. Mary, on the other hand, initially recoils from his advances, as she's more focused on the tempting prize as well as put off by the prospect of being exploited as just a temporary fling.
Death Defying Acts is elegantly crafted, with savory period atmosphere. And a mystical, dreamlike quality, mixing the elusive aura of magic and romance. There are also outstanding ensemble performances all around, including Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Sweeney Todd, The Last Hangman) as Sugarman, Houdini's gruff and exceedingly shrewd road manager who has a knack for fending off tricksters, when not aiding in that endeavor himself.
Death Defying Acts ultimately boasts enchantingly ethereal storytelling. But with the sort of elusiveness that perhaps works better in a magic show, than on the screen.
2 1/2 stars
Prairie Miller is a multimedia journalist online, in print and on radio. Contact her through NewsBlaze.
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