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Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Mixing a dash of truth with heaping helpings of fiction, the UK-Australian film DEATH DEFYING ACTS: HOUDINI'S SECRET (2008) finds legendary escapologist Harry Houdini in Edinburgh, Scotland during his final 1926 European tour (truth), where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful con woman named Mary McGarvie who claims she can help him contact the spirit of his dear, departed mother (fiction). The result is a handsomely-mounted romantic fantasy with an intriguing "what if?" premise and some interesting performances.

Mary and her young tomboyish daughter, Benji, live in an impossibly cozy shack in a cemetery and earn a living performing in a local music hall as "the tantalizing Princess Kali and her dusky disciple." This gives Catherine Zeta-Jones a chance to look fabulous in a skimpy harem costume while she and a brown-faced Benji wow the rubes with their fake psychic act. When Houdini triumphantly enters the city to an ecstatic reception, his standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who can prove their psychic veracity by reciting his mother's dying words to him is an irresistible opportunity for the mother-daughter team.

They set about trying to dig up personal information on Houdini to aid in their deception, and in the process Harry and Mary begin to fall for each other. This unusual romance, and how it effects both a jealous Benji and Harry's doting manager-slash-keeper Mr. Sugarman (Timothy Spall), keeps the story moving until the moment of truth in which Mary is expected to wield her psychic powers before an expectant Houdini and a horde of eager reporters.

Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a gruff but friendly egotist with an imposing personality and boundless energy. The usually rail-thin Pearce comes as a shock in his first shirtless scene--with his new muscular frame he hardly looks like the same person we saw in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO, or THE TIME MACHINE. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a more restrained presence, but her Mary is just as strong-willed as Houdini and rejects his amorous advances until she's sure he regards her as more than a casual fling. As it turns out, Harry's interest in her is based in large part on her uncanny resemblance to his mother, which gives the story an added element of--well, weirdness.

The most interesting performance comes from 14-year-old Saoirse Ronan as Benji. She's a remarkably skilled, thoughtful actress who pretty much steals every scene she's in while doing so in a subtle and natural manner. Her Benji narrates the film, which we see mainly from her viewpoint and experience through her character. Much of the story's emotional resonance comes from the conflict between her devotion to her mother and her hero-worship of Houdini, who is, after all, the object of their deceptive scheme.

Director Gillian Armstrong (MY BRILLIANT CAREER, LITTLE WOMEN) handles the action well and gives the film a hazy, golden-hued, nostalgic look. Lush period detail fills the frame in every scene. The main titles display Armstrong's sometimes quirky visual sense--we see a strait-jacketed Pearce enter the water from below the surface and then drift into closeup, where he floats motionless and calmly holds his breath in one long, unbroken take until the credits are done. It looks like a SPFX shot but it isn't, and Pearce's breath control is the result of training with a professional.

We don't see much of Houdini's performance magic after that, although his famous water torture escape is very nicely duplicated early on. Armstrong imaginatively uses this device as a means for mystical floating visions to appear to whoever is inside it. Houdini sees a ghostly image of his mother, complete with pennies over her eyes; Benji, after accidentally falling in, sees a red-haired angelic harbinger of Houdini's death.

For me, the highlight is the sequence in which Mary is expected to channel the spirit of Houdini's mother before the assembled press and reveal her last words to him. It doesn't go off as expected, and there's a startling twist in which the boundary between fakery and actual spiritualism is apparently blurred. Surprisingly, it's Saoirse Ronan's performance in this scene which is the most impressive.

The widescreen picture and sound are good. The commentary track is just the kind I like--both continuous and well-balanced between being scene-specific and generally informative. It's also amusing the way director Armstrong keeps up a constant monologue while producer Marian Macgowan, who has a better memory for details, inserts various names and other factual data almost seamlessly into the pauses. Additional features consist of a "making-of" featurette and a trailer. There are no deleted scenes because, as Armstrong tells us, the script by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward was so tight that it didn't require any trimming after it was filmed.

Not quite a remarkable film, DEATH DEFYING ACTS: HOUDINI'S SECRET is still an involving and visually satisfying historical fiction that benefits from its lead performances, imaginative story, and fine period setting. The rather peculiar romance between Harry and Mary is far more intriguing and adult than the usual Harlequin nonsense, while the mystical elements give it a nice dark tone and are left tantalizingly unresolved.

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