What had drawn me to watch Death Defying Acts, is that it's a story with Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and escape artist of our time. A few days ago I was browsing through a book which revealed the secrets behind his brand of death defying acts, and really he's a man of science, engineering and most of all, a performer to bring to life the act of fooling an audience into believing his stunts. Sure there's an element of danger, but with proper risk assessment and safeguards, they strip away all the mystique that serves to confound.
But contrary to the title, there's nothing really death defying about the movie, as it treaded on safe ground and doesn't dwell any more on the illusions that it has to. In fact, you can count the number of stunts which involve Harry Houdini, and the filmmakers left that for another biographical movie that someone else should pick up on. What we have instead are glimpses into the man's personal life, and Guy Pearce provided quite an intense and charismatic Houdini with personal demons of his own to do battle with, though the story seemed to rein him in from dwelling too much on that aspect, and preferred to have a more romantic tale weaved in.
The romanticism of the movie is not with his illusions, but with a single parent who's a psychic of sorts, relying on her street smarts to get her own act going. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Mary McGarvie, who has to rely on her wits to build credibility for her stage character. Together with daughter and sidekick Benji (played by Saoirse Ronan of Atonement fame), the mother and daughter team tries hard to make a living from their acts, but realize that they're by no means close to Houdini's widespread fame and fortune.
However, Houdini himself throws a gauntlet to all psychics far and wide, that whosoever can accurately reveal what his late mother had last said to him, will inherit US$10,000. His purpose it seems is to reveal that the majority of these soothsayers are tricksters in disguise, until of course he meets the luminous Mary, and affairs of the heart throws him off course. Naturally, Mary and Benji find themselves up against the best in the business, but when your back is against the wall, there's nothing much to lose it seems.
As mentioned earlier, this movie's more of a character study of the master magician, and explores things like his guilt because of dedication to his craft and performance, as well as his questionable motives in being attracted to the fictional Mary McGarvie. Narrated by the character of Benji, we see things through a child's eyes, and perhaps therein lies the loss of some pathos in the romantic angle of it. On one hand, it isn't your classic romantic story, while on the other, it doesn't seem to want to preach the method, rationale and mindset of Houdini himself.
So what emerged is a mixed bag. Beautifully shot, but again falling on the emptiness of its effort in trying to allow the audience to feel for the characters. At least Timothy Spall, who plays Mr Sugarman, Houdini's manager, allowed for some light moments as the guarded and wary person that he is. And credit goes to keeping the ending quite right too.