Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Director Gillian Armstrong has a way with female-driven character dramas. Charlotte Gray, Oscar & Lucinda, and Little Women all made us laugh and cry while revolving around strong women and the equally fascinating men in their lives. Death Defying Acts is no exception and while it is historically inaccurate and even offensive to fans of the real Harry Houdini, it is also a beautifully crafted story.
He has the world eating out of the palm of his hand, but ever since the death of his mother, the death-defying Houdini (Guy Pearce) has been slipping further into melancholy. Globe-trotting in a much-publicized challenge to all psychics to prove evidence of an afterlife, he promises a reward of $10,000 to anyone who can tell him what his mother's final words were to him on his deathbed. Mediums flock to him by the hundreds in London, Paris, and New York, while giant crowds gather to watch his most recent stunt -- escaping from a tank filled with water, bound hand and foot and hung upside-down. One of his biggest fans is Benji (Ronan), a sometimes-pick-pocket who helps her mother out in her stage act at a musical hall. Nipping trinkets off people in the street, she then produces them for Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to "read" and they use it to convince bystanders of her psychic gifts.
When their short success at a local theater comes to an abrupt end after the manager skips town, Mary turns her attention to the publicity surrounding Houdini's imminent arrival in Scotland. More than anything, she wants that money and recruits her daughter into helping her. Houdini is willing to give her a chance to impress, but his manager (Timothy Spall) is much more of a skeptic. The result is a very beautifully photographed and surprisingly moving film that is more about the made-up characters than the realities of Houdini's life. Some of its details are accurate and others take great leaps in morality and imagination that have left audiences offended. I understand their frustration, because I too share it. I have a problem with misrepresentation of real people. Just as the suicide of Officer Murdoch in Titanic offended me, Houdini cheating on his wife offended me. I wish that aspect of the film had been left out, because it ruined what was an otherwise breathtaking experience. I don't think Houdini would appreciate it.
That major flaw aside, the performances are wonderful. I had seen Saoirse Ronan in Atonement and she was very good, but this role really allows her to showcase her talents. Her transition from a child to a young woman is lovely to watch and her chemistry with her adult costars is electric. Armstrong is known for the lushness of her productions and as a result, there is so much visual splendor for the audience to look at, from ghostly bellowers and shaded lanes to the eerie quality of nightmares. The script is quite good but does seem to take a rather unflattering view of Houdini at times, painting him as somewhat crass and unhappy in his marriage. There isn't much content but two uses of GD do make it into the script, along with a use of s**t. We do not see Mary and Houdini sleep together but it is heavily implied (she wakes up alone the next morning, covered only in a sheet).
What may trouble Christian audiences more is the heavy emphasis on spiritualism and séances. Most of it is trickery and openly depicted as such but the script is ambiguous toward the end in which Benji falls into a trance and relays information that hints at Houdini's impending death. She several times experiences strange dreams, one of them involving an angel with red hair. Houdini, when near drowning, sees a vision of his mother reaching out to him. I never felt that these instances were dark or spiritually malevolent, but more sensitive audiences might consider them a reasonable deterrent. To be honest, I absolutely loved the film up until the adulterous tryst, which had a slightly sinister twist to it (Mary is almost the spitting image of Houdini's mother in her youth). Then my disappointment caused affection to wane slightly, but overall it was one of the loveliest recent films I have seen. Even if my moral sensibilities are offended on Houdini's behalf.