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Death Defying Acts

Film Two Stars
Death Defying Acts had me very interested because it starred Guy Pearce who is a superb character actor as Harry Houdini, a man whom we really haven't seen much of on screen. The story also sounded intriguing as it followed Houdini on one of his travels around the world performing and at the same time trying to find a real psychic who could bring evidence of a world beyond ours.

Of course there was one more reason, and that was the location was Edinburgh, Scotland, my home town. With all that going for it it sounded like a superb film. However the opening really didn't hold well with me for the very reason that I am Scottish.

DeathDefyingActs.jpgThe opening scenes grated with me immediately as a Scottish person. We saw a theatre called McTavish's Theatre and an opening to a show that featured a small person in a typically tourist-like and Scottish parody highland outfit, and there were more terrible Scottish clichés to come.

For me it really was hard to recover from that point, but I would guess that it would probably have been much easier for a non-Scottish person watching the film.

One thing that really did appeal to me as a Scot and a resident of Edinburgh were the wonderful shots of the city and some of the locations used, it does show off what a beautiful city it is.


Plot.pngThe story sees Harry Houdini taking his show around the world in 1926, performing amazing feats and acts of illusion and escapism to all. While he travels he extends a challenge to mystics and psychics around the world - tell him the words his dying mother spoke to him and deliver proof of the afterlife and be awarded with a handsome sum of money.

He travels to Edinburgh and a beautiful woman who claims to be a psychic takes up his challenge. However Houdini is seemingly attracted to her and events take strange turns for all concerned.


TheFilm.pngAfter that very tourist like Scottish scene we get our first experience of Catherine Zeta-Jones sporting the Scottish accent, and that is a little difficult to get used to. To begin with there was a feeling of her accent slipping in and out of her native Welsh, but to be fair it soon settles down and for the rest of the film she really does carry off the Scottish accent well.

I had this feeling of dread about how the film was going to treat the character of Houdini and if they were going to belittle and diminish what he was and had achieved in his life.

I haven't seen any films about the real life of Houdini and yet his life seems such an attractive and engaging story, and I do think that his life would really make a great film. So with Hollywood taking this slice of his life and dramatising it, I was concerned it wouldn't do the name of Houdini justice.

This feeling grew throughout the film as much was revealed about the character of Houdini and the story involving him in Edinburgh continued. During some sequences with Houdini I found myself wondering what actually happened and what Houdini really did say or do. It does seem that the film might be taking a lot of liberties with the character and history, and we really aren't clear what was true and what was dramatised.

I found that this was bothering me more and more during the film, I think that this was because I was wanting to learn more about this mysterious character, and this film showed him as a modern man who was filled with failings and eager to cheat on his wife with little encouragement.

At the end of the film there were a number of written explanations about the actual characters and what had happened to them, however they flashed by so quickly there was little chance of reading them.

Although I really didn't like the initial portrayal of Scotland or the treatment of the character of Houdini and the historical events, I did enjoy the acting in this film.

Zeta-Jones was a refreshing surprise and played her character well, she managed to show herself as very manipulative and thoroughly dislikeable. Guy Pearce performed brilliantly as always and was superb as the character of Houdini, and if there was to be a real story of his life then I could think of no better actor. Then there's Timothy Spall who really does deserve a mention for his strong performance as Houdini's manager.

The actors are all good in their roles, but there's something about the characters themselves that presents another problem for the film, there's not a likeable one among them.

They do all have their moments, and at some points there's an attempt to make a connection, but the problem is that they are so dislikeable for the rest of the film that you just can't get that close to them.

Zeta-Jones' character of Mary McGarvie is manipulative to all and uncaring towards her daughter, indeed you feel as though she views her daughter as a tool to help get what she wants. For the most part her daughter follows her blindly and defends her, as well as idolising Houdini, but later she turns and becomes just like her mother in a terrible way, destroying any chance of liking her.

The character closest to being truly likeable is that of the manager played by Spall. Although he's very business like and doesn't have much of a human side to him, you do get the feeling that he does actually care for Houdini, something that comes to the fore later on.

So the fact that the most likeable character is an ancillary one and not one of the leads makes it even harder to connect with the film.

As for the plot, with the benefit of hindsight I think I realise what it was trying to do with the relationships between the characters, and although Houdini was slightly blinded by the beauty of the psychic he still had other motives in mind. To an extent the lead characters in the film were all playing different parts to get what they wanted, but for the most part it was quite difficult to differentiate what was an act and what was actually in the hearts and minds of the characters.

This had the affect of pushing me away from the characters and raising another barrier to me making a connection with them.

The overarching story was good though and if it had been portrayed a little stronger and with more understanding of the characters intentions, it could have made for a more exciting relationship between Mary McGarvie and Houdini.


Overall.pngThe film does evoke the feeling of the time and initially captures the essence of Harry Houdini, however the dramatic elements do seem to take a lot of liberties with the character and the true story between them, and this can prove to be a little frustrating.

The characters themselves are not likeable at all, gaining an element of hate for a couple of them at certain points, and that makes it very difficult to make any connection and to lay sympathies with any one. Saying that though the acting is good and scenes between the leads are enjoyable to watch.

Still I didn't really leave the cinema with a sense of enjoyment for the film and I felt more frustrated at the shortcomings than anything. I know I expected more of a film that featured Harry Houdini, and it failed to deliver that apart from some early scenes.

Buy or Rent from LOVEFiLM
Buy from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
Search for Death Defying Acts on Filmstalker stores
UK IMDB Film Details
Filmstalker's Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008 page





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Movable Type 3.34