Dubby’s dvdiscussion: Death acts


By definition movies are illusions. So how delightful it is to have an illusion about illusions. It becomes a little more complex when the illusions in the movie are not your run of the mill feelings but are stories about illusions like The Prestige and indeed The Illusionist and now comes one about the greatest escape artist of all time Harry Houdini.

In Death Defying Acts we don’t see him on familiar American turf but in 1926 Edinburgh where he is about to be snared by a false psychic Catherine Zeta-Jones aided by her daughter

played by the brilliant Saoirse Ronan who did so much to make the movie Atonement really good.

Says critic Dennis Harvey, “It’s an original script — one that, for long in its development history (it was written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward), didn’t involve Houdini at all, which may explain why the mix of a real-life legend and fictive personnel never quite gels.

Zeta-Jones plays Mary McGarvie, a beauteous con artist who uses cheating tactics and teen daughter Benji to fake a music-hall psychic act. When news hits that Houdini is coming to town with a psychic challenge — $10,000 goes to whoever can channel his beloved late mother’s last words — Mary sets her sights on the prize.

Benji manages to meet Houdini first, sneaking into a dressing room, to his amusement, if not that of grumbling manager Mr Sugarman (Timothy Spall). When Benji introduces mum, Houdini declares she might be “the one,” for no apparent reason.

Now ensconced in luxury digs adjoining the escape artist’s own, Mary and Benji try to spy their way into finding out Ma Houdini’s final utterances before the public challenge is staged for an audience of sceptical journalists and scientists. But the Yank himself appears more interested in romancing the distinctly husband-free Mrs McGarvie, irking Sugarman, who figures her for a gold-digger.

By midpoint, the narrative hinges more on the romance developing between Houdini and Mary than on irrelevant details. Why does suspicious, hard-to-impress Houdini become smitten so fast with this Scottish vamp? Don’t beautiful women throw themselves at the virile, globetrotting celebrity all the time?

Result is a brisk, well-produced pic that lacks depth; nor does it provide the fun of deliberate,

flamboyant one-dimensionality. There’s no real tension, nothing specific to root for.

Pearce gets to show off a fearsomely fit form, Zeta-Jones has fun with her psychic act, and both do their accents well. But star quality alone can’t salvage two disagreeable, bossy characters who hardly seem made for each other. Dressed in boy’s clothes for no apparent purpose (save that it’s de rigeur now for young girl heroines to be tomboys), Ronan is plucky and precocious to the brink of annoyance. Spall punches clock, and subsidiary roles are mere bit parts.

If pic offers little of substance, its packaging can’t be faulted: Lensing, production design and costuming are all very attractive. Cezary Skubiszewski’s score aims to heighten character by mixing in klezmer-style (for Houdini) and Scottish folk (Mary) motifs.

One of the best Aussie directors of her generation, Armstrong may be incapable of making a graceless film. But coming after Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Gray, Death Defying Acts underlines how long it’s been since she’s had a project that fit just right.”

But all said and done we are taken back to conniving in a more innocent time where lovers could overlook a little skulduggery. And yes there are shocks awaiting you. This is not a great movie. It’s a beautiful one. But you will forget it and await the next Zeta-Jones pairing.


So bewildered was Dubby Bhagat by the excellent food at The Soaltee Crowne Plaza’s Kakori, he inadvertently called the beautiful Ms Manandhar Ms Maharjan. Dubby, we are afraid, can only do one thing at one time or his circuits shut down. We ask Ms Manandhar to carry on feeding him and apologise to her. — Eds