Dir: Gillian Armstrong UK/Australia. 2007. 97 mins.
The period romance is back in style if the UK success of Atonement is anything to go by, but Death Defying Acts is so corny and old-fashioned that only diehard romantics are likely to consider it magical. The relationship between famed escapologist Harry Houdini and a Scottish con artist should have provided the material for an impossible love story in which mutual attraction overwhelmed the innate cynicism of both parties. Director Gillian Armstrong depicts the affair with the warm sincerity of a true believer, but the story remains stubbornly unpersuasive.
The Illusionist (2006) and The Prestige (2006) may already have satisfied the public appetite for tales of amorous intrigue and sleight of hand. Theatrical returns will be slender although the star names and lush production values will allow it a better after life in ancillary markets.
The film is set in 1926 when Houdini would have been in his early fifties, which makes Guy Pearce at least a decade too young for the role as well as the wrong nationality and physical build. The Hungarian-born Houdini was short, stocky and Jewish and has been famously played by Harvey Keitel in Fairytale: A True Story (1997) and Tony Curtis in Houdini (1953).
Pearce does his best to suggest the mixture of muscular bravado and wounded vulnerability that defined Houdini's latter years but never seems entirely comfortable in the role.
Renowned for his death defying escapes from tanks of water, elaborate handcuffs and crippling straitjackets, Houdini is a global superstar when he visits Edinburgh as part of a world tour.
Haunted by an unresolved relationship with his late mother, he has offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who can prove that there is life beyond the grave. The proof requires them to reveal his dying mother's final words which are known only to Houdini. Scottish psychic Mary McGregor (Jones) and her daughter Benji (Ronan) are determined to secure the cash but Mary feels a genuine connection to Houdini that blossoms into love.
A handsome production that makes good use of its Scottish locations, Death Defying Acts is marked by the same fondness for full blown romantic cliche that made Armstrong's adaptation of Charlotte Gray (2001) a delight for some audiences but a commercial failure.
There is a warm, golden glow to the cinematography and an impeccable eye for production design across the social spectrum from the elaborate fabrics and furniture of Houdini's Edinburgh hotel suite to the more modest graveyard shack in which Mary and Benji have made a home. The result is cosy, classical storytelling that lacks the depth of feeling or edgy approach that might have made a stronger impression.
Catherine Zeta Jones sports an acceptable Scottish accent as Mary, but is more convincing as a woman in love than as the slinky, femme fatale of the Scottish music halls. Saoirse Ronan, so memorable as the spiteful young Briony in Atonement, is rather too theatrical and eager to please as the irrepressibly impish Benji and is also saddled with an excessive amount of wistful voice-over narration explaining in stock terms how all their lives would never be quite the same again.
MacGowan Lupovitz Nasatir Films (Aus)
Zephyr Films (UK)
BBC Films (UK)
Myriad Pictures (US)
David M Thompson
Catherine Zeta Jones