Directors' Showcase / UK premiere

Death Defying Acts

  • Gillian Armstrong /
  • United Kingdom, Australia /
  • 2007 /
  • 97 mins

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan / Fiction / English

Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones strike sparks in an elegant, Edinburgh-set period romance.

?Gillian Armstrong’s handsome, playful period fantasy imagines a flirtation between the legendary escapologist Harry Houdini and a comely Scottish conwoman, against the picturesque backdrop of 1920s Edinburgh. Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a tough, punchy showman, fuelled by nervous energy and a manic glint of curiosity. Having broken the boundaries of agility, endurance and visual trickery, he’s frustrated by the solidity of other physical constraints, such as the one preventing communication with his dead mother. Hence, his interest in psychics – most of whom quite naturally turn out to be fake. Houdini‘s zeal to find the real thing has made him the greatest debunker of his time. This doesn’t dissuade plucky Mary from having a go – but she, being played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, intrigues Houdini with rather more than just her dubious “gift”. Stunts and illusions from the age of vaudeville have been a particular draw for filmmakers in recent times, and Death Defying Acts shares some of the sweeping, glitter-dusted romanticism that suffused Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Neil Burger’s The Illusionist. The focus of Death Defying Acts is less on Houdini’s work, however, than on his character – and most specifically his fascination with Mary. Mary is the mother of a tomboy girl, Benji (recent Oscar® nominee Saoirse Ronan), and upon seeing them together Houdini begins to associate her with his own lost mother. Their romance is entwined with his obsession with contacting the dead, and so takes on a morbid air. Benji dreams of the lovers tethered together underwater – while Houdini sees Mary posed in underwear and his mother’s wedding veil. Armstrong has dwelt before upon relationships that are forbidden, or better sacrificed than pursued, in My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Gray. Death Defying Acts adds the sad but knowing twist that a life lived shrouded in superstition and fantasy can sometimes serve a man better than full engagement with real-world responsibilities.

2008 Archive

Image from Death Defying Acts

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