Death Defying Acts

Death Defying Acts

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

When Harry Houdini comes to Edinburgh, will he escape with his heart? asks this pretty period piece that is more froth than substance.

It's 1926 and the world-renowned escapologist (Guy Pearce, looking irresistibly buff these days) has lost his mum and promised $10,000 to anyone one who proves 'scientifically' they have communicated with her from beyond the grave. Much of the story is smoke and mirrors in terms of fact, but this is pitched more at romance fans than Houdini addicts. Among the fictions is the character of Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a single-mum who with her daughter Benji (Saorise Ronan) poses onstage as a psychic, using trickery to con the punters.


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Living in a gypsy caravan at one of the city's graveyards is a long way from the high life Mary longs for, so she and Benji hatch a plan to part Houdini from his money, but when they meet the man himself, it seems that fate and romance may well throw a spanner in the works.

When Zeta-Jones turned flapper girl for Chicago, she smouldered so hard she was singeing the screen and she sizzled as a quick-witted wife out to beat a hotshot lawyer in Intolerable Cruelty. Here she glows a little, but there's not enough about her fake gypsy psychic's chemistry with Houdini to really set the heather alight.

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This is the fault of the script, rather than the acting since - particularly in later scenes - Pearce and Zeta-Jones lift the material considerably. The problem lies, for the most part, in the lack of plausibility. The city looks far too clean for the period, with even the street-corner ragamuffins scrubbed up to shine like the sun. The romance between these two brittle characters also feels rather too whirlwind for their personalities.

That said, once the film gathers some momentum - and Zeta-Jones Scottish accent gathers some stability - it really isn't a bad romp. Ronan's voice-over is overused and hints at aspects of real psychic power that are never really given the chance to meet their full potential, but she is a decent actress who plays the part well. Timothy Spall, turns up, takes his cheque and provides some broad, not very challenging character acting as Houdini's manager Mr Sugarman.

The cinematography, sets and costumes are lush and lavish, and director Gillian Armstrong proves she is a veteran of period pieces (Charlotte Gray, Oscar And Lucinda), making good use of the Edinburgh cityscape, without turning it into a chocolate box. Her use of the Scott Monument, in particular, is very clever, as she employs some trickery of her own to give it a much more vertiginous feel than it has in reality. Entertaining enough in a lightweight way, but not destined to become a classic.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2008
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Harry Houdini falls for a gypsy 'psychic' in an Edinburgh-set period romance.
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Darren Amner **

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Writer: Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward

Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan, Jack Bailey, Aaron Brown, MacKay Crawford, James Fiddy, Martin Fisher, Tim Frost, Campbell Graham

Year: 2007

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: UK


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