Childlike wonder redeems inscrutable Houdini

Death Defying ActsDeath Defying Acts: 93 minutes. Rated: PG. Director: Gillian Armstrong. Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan.

The title is dramatic, and the opening sequence is equally so. The camera, immersed deep underwater, peers towards the distant surface. The glubs and gurgles of undulating H2O resonate all around.

All is foreboding serenity, until a human figure, shackled but calm, plunges into the dark depths. It is Harry Houdini (Pearce), the famed American escape artist and international celebrity. He performs his stunt, escaping his chains and returning to the surface, rising to the adoring applause of his multitudinous audience.

From such spectacular beginnings, Death Defying Acts simmers down into an understated story about the nature of celebrity and the power of belief. It recaptures the splendour of those opening moments only sporadically. Australian director Armstrong has something other than spectacle in mind, and the result is somewhat lacklustre.

The primary viewpoint in Death Defying Acts is the worshipful gaze of young Houdini fan Benji McGarvie (Ronan). Benji is part of a double-act Scottish psychic swindle with her mother Mary (a firebrand Zeta-Jones), in which they employ prior research and a sense of showmanship to 'channel' audience members' deceased loved ones.

Sure, their behavior is exploitative. But tough times call for tough measures. The McGarvie women comprise a single-parent family in a male-dominated society, so you can hardly blame them for making a living the best way they can. They've found a successful formula and have made a comfortable living off their stage show.

When Houdini announces that he's coming to town with a $10,000 reward for any psychic who can successfully contact his deceased mother, Mary and Benji think they've got the goods to take him. But Benji's hero-worship, and Mary's growing infatuation with the charming and charismatic performer, mean this can be no clean-cut con.

Houdini proves to be an enigmatic character. He's all charm and showmanship, but with hidden depths and dark secrets. His nearly obsessive sense of attachment to his late mother is unsettling. But the inscrutability of the character is ultimately to the film's detriment. You never really glimpse the humanity behind Houdini's layered yet manufactured public persona. It's as if he never truly surfaced following that death-defying plunge during the film's opening scene.

The lack of chemistry between Pearce and Zeta-Jones is a nearly fatal problem. The somewhat detached love affair that evolves between them fails to drive home the film's decidedly trite message: that love is the 'magic' behind the mundane façade of reality.

The grand production of this period drama — the ornate recreation of 1920s Edinburgh — distracts from the deflated central story, but it's ultimately in the hands of the film's youngest cast member, 13-year-old Ronan, to make this film worthwhile.

Ronan infuses her every scene with much-needed energy and humour. More importantly, Benji, as narrator, provides the audience with a lens of childlike wonder through which to watch the events unfold. This lends a fantastical edge to an otherwise mediocre story.

Co-Producer Zephyr Films
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Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and the speculative fiction review website ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction.




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