Death Defying Acts film review

This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 13, 2008.

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward

Starring Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Timothy Spall and Saoirse Ronan

Harry Houdini always maintained he was born in Wisconsin in the USA, but in was fact born in Budapest, Hungary with the name Erik (later Ehrich) Weisz.  The son of a Reform rabbi, his family immigrated to the USA in 1874 when Houdini was four.  When the family later moved to New York, Houdini became a champion cross country runner at age 10, then a trapeze artist “Ehrich, Price of the Air”), and then a professional magician with the name we now know him by.  It was only when he moved from magic to escape artistry that his career truly took off, with wide touring, particularly throughout Europe.

After the death of his mother, Houdini spent a great deal of time debunking quack psychics, and even became good friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a committed spiritualist. Houdini’s well-known extraordinary physical and mental conditioning ultimately proved his downfall, when a fan tested his ability to “take a punch”, catching him unawares and apparently bursting his appendix.

Houdini starred in a number of silent films, and at least seven films have been made of his life, along with numerous fictional appearances in fiction, songs and plays.  More than 80 years after his death in 1926, he remains a major part of popular culture, for his exploits, his personality and his noted development as the “muscled Jew”.

Death Defying Acts, the latest biopic about Houdini, comes with a peculiar Australian pedigree:  Gillian Armstrong directs Guy Pearce in the title role, in a British-Australian co-production.  Aside from the involvement of a number of Australian creative talents, there is only one hint of Australia on-screen:  an early fleeting scene takes place in Sydney, and we can see a half-finished Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.

Death Defying Acts is set in 1926, the year of Houdini’s death, during a tour of the UK when Houdini notably continues to offer rewards for psychics and spiritualists to prove their abilities, to the dismay of his British-Jewish manager Sugarman (played by British character actor Timothy Spall).  This is the “inside” Houdini, wracked by personal doubt, desperately lonely and with evident emotional and spiritual weaknesses not visible to the public:  very much based on Houdini’s final years, but with a real emphasis on his own fakery (he did frequently hide a key to his locks in his mouth) and personal failings – also extending the accepted history to posit that Houdini really did want to believe in psychic powers.

Enter accomplished but poor con-woman Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for her role in Atonement).  McGarvie declares her capability to meet Houdini’s psychic challenge (what were the last words his mother spoke to him), but what follows is not two con artists conning each other, instead an oddly shaped love story.

With his Jewish “Afro”, Guy Pearce certainly looks like Houdini, but the film is let down by a flat script which simply does not carry it far enough.  Compare Death Defying Acts to two recent (2006) films featuring magician/escape artists (both based in many ways on Houdini): The Prestige, with Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, directed by Christopher Nolan; and The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti.  These earlier films had true suspense, mystery and illusion.

By contrast, Death Defying Acts is simply unengaging, with no attempt to develop a real con-counter con, relying instead on what it believes is a convincing psychological intrigue between Mary and Harry, and only one twist that propels the film for its final third.  But the psychological battle is pedestrian and the final twist simply not enough:  I predicted the ending well before it happened. 

There is something about Houdini’s life that defies direct translation to the screen in a quality film; only a major spin-off like The Prestige seems to work properly.  Perhaps it is Houdini’s dark side, or the missing gaps in his biography that no-one quite understands.  To their great credit, the makers of Death Defying Acts have tried to grapple with the complexities that made up Erik turned Ehrich turned Harry Houdini, but he has proven illusive yet again.

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