Death Defying Acts
dir Gillian Armstrong
scr Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward
with Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Saoirse Ronan, Timothy Spall, Frankey Martyn, MacKay Crawford, Chris Wilson, Aileen O'Gorman, Aaron Brown, Martin Fisher, Jack Bailey, James Fiddy
release UK 8.Aug.08
07/UK BBC 1h37
Death Defying Acts
Cheek to cheek: Zeta-Jones and Pearce

pearce ronan spall
TORONTO FILM FEST edinburgh film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Death Defying Acts If you take this as a work of fiction, it's a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously produced, passionately romantic period drama. But it's also rather unbelievable as a true chapter in the life of the master escapologist.

Benji McGarvie (Ronan) is a teen in 1920s Edinburgh who's obsessed by the larger-than-life exploits of Harry Houdini (Pearce). So when he comes to town, she's determined to see him. Benji and her mother Mary (Zeta-Jones) are a con-artist double-act, and decide to accept Houdini's challenge: $10,000 to the first psychic who can tell him his mother's dying words. As the women try to find out Harry's secrets, his assistant Sugarman (Spall) tries to keep them at arm's length. But Mary and Harry begin to fall for each other.

Director Armstrong assembles the film on a big scale, with sumptuous cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos and an involving, seductive tone. She also tells the story in a wry, often very funny way. Mary and Benji's psychic show is hilariously over the top, although it's not that much more ridiculous than Houdini and Sugarman's mysterious grandstanding. So when these four people recognise the performer in each other, the chemistry is intriguing.

Where it stumbles is in the casting of Zeta-Jones, who plays Mary in a too-knowing way. Her constant teasing and conniving begin to grate because Zeta-Jones seems more like a glamorous movie star than a realistic character. Even so, she's terrific in her scenes with the lean, muscled Pearce, a darkly adult romance that begins to get interesting before it intrudes on the more important story about a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with her idol.

This is actually Ronan's movie, or rather it should be. She solidly holds everything together in her first lead role, acting the veterans off the screen through subtle and bold acting choices. And her scenes with Spall have a special snap. So it's a shame that the story itself feels like smoke and mirrors with nowhere to go, wanting to have its cake and eat it too: remaining sceptical about the supernatural while shamelessly indulging in magical plot devices. But when Benji's story emerges from the romantic sludge, it's pretty powerful.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 4.Apr.08

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... Death Defying Acts Still waiting for your comments ... don't be shy.
© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall