DEATH DEFYING ACTS
When superstar escape artist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) arrives in Edinburgh on his 1926 world tour with his manager, the long suffering Sugarman (Timothy Spall), he offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who can contact his late mother, and repeat what she told him on her deathbed. He is adamant that science, not superstition, should rule the world. The beautiful but deceptive Marie Magarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has a psychic cabaret act with her young sidekick daughter, the worldly wise Benji (Saoirse Ronan), with whom she survives on their combined wits. When Marie decides to take the challenge, she manages to convince Houdini that she is indeed someone special - her likeness to his late mother helps. Houdini, with a wife back home, is taken by her charms, and what begins as a con evolves into a complicated and dangerous affair.
Review by Louise Keller:
Everyone's a fake, says Timothy Spall's cigar smoking, cynical Mr Sugarman, the man who keeps the great Houdini's dark side at bay. Trickery, magic, guilt and love are the themes of Gillian Armstrong's intriguing film about Houdini, and the renowned escape artist's affair with a professional psychic. It is 1926 and not only does Guy Pearce's Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones' Mary McGarvie make their living from show business through the art of illusion, but they are both part of a double act. Mr Sugarman is Houdini's side-kick and astute business partner; Mary's young daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) is her partner in crime. Armstrong takes the material and shapes it into a splendid tale, a compelling mix of fact and fiction.
I really like the unexpectedness of this surprisingly dense film and its four stand-out performances from its leads. Thirteen year old Saoirse Ronan must surely be the most promising young talent of the year; she portrays the street savvy but innocent Benji with such grit and truth. She and Zeta-Jones (with a fine Scottish accent) make an endearing pair, both off and on stage. Timothy Spall injects sober reality as the man who looks out for the great Houdini, and it is good to see Guy Pearce in a role that allows him to display all his talents.
Armstrong paints a complex portrait of the times, the celebrity world of Houdini and Mary's struggling existence. I love the scene when Mary takes Houdini to a regular bar and all pretence is discarded as they laughingly make coins disappear all the while smiling knowingly at how the trick is done. Of course, love complicates everything, and the film gracefully shifts and twists until the final resolution which is nicely done. Armstrong pulls yet another trick out of the hat with Cezary Skubiszewski's magical score and Gemma Jackson's production design is a treat.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Gillian Armstrong had 80% of the film's success in the can when she finished casting - but that's not to take anything away from her terrific directing achievement with a film that could so easily hit the wrong note. Indeed, it is her firm hold on the tone of the film that makes it work so well on so many levels. Guy Pearce creates a complex, difficult and edgy Houdini, a man whose success has just made it easier for him to indulge his dark side - exactly what we might expect from a quietly tormented superstar. We eventually learn that it is guilt that has twisted and driven him.
By contrast, Catherine Zeta-Jones's Marie and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) are more or less free of guilt altogether, as they con their way through early 20th century Edinburgh; but it's a matter of survival. Ronan is sensational as the youngster who knows enough of the world to be both cynical and sardonic, without losing the exuberance and optimism of youth. Timothy Spall makes best use of his thoroughly British working class persona as the wretch who has to clean up after Harry, manage his business and stay in the background.
The screenplay, a helter skelter mish-mash of fact and fiction, is like a hypothetical, but a fascinating one with a clear eye for story. It never loses its focus on how Houdini's emotional world is collapsed by Marie - and why. There is a wonderful sense of time and place thanks to superb lighting camerawork from Haris Zambarloukos with Gemma Jackson's excellent production design, and Cezary Skubiszewski's score is a triumph. Armstrong's visual style of story telling (stylishly edited by Nicholas Beauman) is highly effective, generating emotional intensity and a satisfying resolution.
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DEATH DEFYING ACTS (PG)
CAST: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan,
PRODUCER: Chris Curling, Marian McGowan,
DIRECTOR: Gillian Armstrong
SCRIPT: Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Haris Zambarloukos
EDITOR: Nicholas Beauman
MUSIC: Cezary Skubiszewski
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Gemma Jackson
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 13, 2008