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I liked it. Period.
It is strange how much effect an ending has over someone's view of a film. It makes sense: the last glimpse of the cinematic world you have entered should be your final memory of it. As the steadily-paced crescendo of the characters' lives, the climax approaches in the ever-nearing horizon and then you crash straight into the sun with a reaction. And as Gillian Armstrong's troupe were all gathered onscreen, consisting of Saoirse Ronan's feisty Benji, Catherine Zeta-Jones' driven mother Mary, Timothy Spall's calculating Sugarman, and Guy Pearce's haunted Harry Houdini, at the point of impact, we reach it. The spellbinding climactic message scorches for an instant then is left branded upon the film: the only magic you never expect is love.
This climax however brings forth vomit. It is plain now that Armstrong's world was worth the visit, clambering the streets and rooftops of inner-city Edinburgh with the wide-eyed Benji and being moved by both sides to the Houdini character, but the culmination of the script won't satisfy anyone after more than the schmaltzy romance this becomes. It may have been possible that the characters themselves don't want the film to be a romantic affair, because they certainly go out of their way for anything but romance, especially Zeta-Jones and Pearce.
What they probably were seeking to be in was a story about the ins and outs of magic and illusion, exemplified in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige or Neil Burger's The Illusionist, both released within a year of Death Defying Acts's release. The central question of whether or not magic is real, and whether it makes a difference either way, was a trend here which either Tony Grisoni or Brian Ward had focused on due to the success of, or in keeping with, those films. Armstrong certainly enjoys the focus on the magic behind the curtain, with telling shots lingering on the backstage actions and reactions of Mary and Benji McGarvie at their pseudo-psychic act. However, that theme appears swiftly to be answered by the existence of the red-headed spectre who haunts Benji throughout, implying a supernatural element beyond the audience's understanding, juxtaposing anything and everything explained by the film's script.
More pressingly than a lousy answer to the spiritualism question supposedly at the film's core is the lacklustre romance between Zeta-Jones and Pearce. This does not seem a problem with the actors: granted that further chemistry would have aided the issue, Zeta-Jones and Pearce are very well-rounded in their portrayals of their characters. Zeta-Jones' Mary is a sober spiritualist performer, who expresses her primary concern for her daughter's safety with telling looks and the slightest of embraces, and Pearce's Houdini is a tormented Jekyll figure seeking solace from his mother's sudden death, hiding (or Hyding?) behind his own illusion as an anarchist showman against the laws of nature itself. Both actors understand the forced nature of the romance, and shots where they are contractually obliged to kiss and embrace as if they were on the cover of a penny-romance feel just as mismatched for them as it looks to an audience.
No-one can take full responsibility for the shoddy romance: the script is crafted well with telling and implicit character introductions; Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography tracks the Edinburgh skyline with such grace that he cannot be the one to squish Zeta-Jones and Pearce together in such an ill-fitting manner (as proven by his work on Steven Knight's Locke six years later); and Armstrong had worked with an 11 year old Kirsten Dunst on Little Women, so she would understand how to get a genuine performance out of any and all actors. Why this romantic plot (and it is more central than a sub-plot to the film) exists when it is so out of character, when the entire cast and crew knows it, seems almost like it had appeared from thin air like a coin behind an ear.
Gratefully on top of the icing-drowned cake, there are some cherries. All eyes are on Ronan for most of the film, an incredible talent beyond her years (and only a month younger than me!). Timothy Spall is still the only actor in the English-speaking world who can convey every emotion differently through slight and distinct scowls better than Harrison Ford. The relationship of distrust but near-admiration between the two characters forms an interesting piece of background drama, particularly highlighted in a lovely Jaws reference when Benji emulates every one of Sugarman's social rituals at a private ball. Armstrong commands the world of early 20th century Edinburgh in a way that appears period without falling into period drama stereotypes: things feel 'wee' but never twee.
However, there is not enough to firmly root the film away from its descent into the pulp romance it never should have been. There is no problem with its twisting of history, indeed great films have played on the truth such as John Sturges' The Great Escape with Steve McQueen on a motorbike chase or Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds with Hitler's more 'cinematic' death, and the creation of 'new history' plays to the film's strengths. But the soppy nature of the plot's developments, not to mention the possibility of a Houd-oedipal complex, jars the narrative towards that vomit-inducing climax. Love, as it turns out, is the one kind of magic that Houdini never really needed in this film.
Ok. An interesting story but not much more.
I a didn't Mind It. Wasn't Sure Of How The Themes Were Trying To Come Together But Guy Pierce Just Acts His Part SomWell He Holds The Story Being Told Together...But It Need Some Better Pacing As It Gets Boring.
Mildly passable to Houdini enthusiasts (yet ultimately pointless, given its fictional roots) "Death Defying Acts" tells the tale of romance between the grand escape artist/magician and a charlatan out to take his money. Pearce plays Houdini as a belligerent yet smooth-as-silk huckster, with Jones' Scottish accent in overdrive as the phone psychic. Completely made-up, it's anyone's guess why someone as genuinely interesting and alluring as Houdini would need additional stories crafted on from scratch. Not horrible so much as bland.
Actually, & surprisingly, I kinda like it.
Only a small footnote: Saoirse Ronan did "wow" me once. The more films of her I have watched however, the more I think she's just trying too hard sometimes, & almost starts getting annoying.
I'll admit, Harry Houdini deserved a better film to remind the world of him but I guess not all films have to be award winners.
Houdini udlover en belønning til den,der kan fortælle ham, hvad hans mors sidste ord var, og fupmagersken Mary McGarvie sætter sig for at snøre udbryderkongen. Lyder lovende, men historien er simpelthen for tynd til at fylde filmen ud, så det hele kommer til at hænge på kemien mellem Pearce og Zeta-Jones, og den er stort set fraværende. Gode præstationer af alle, inklusive Timothy Spall og Saoirse Ronan, men det er skønne spildte kræfter.
This seemed destined for a main stream release and it has all the features of a generally popular film. For some reason, it never got that full Hollywood treatment so only a few of us got to see this mediocre gem with few shining parts.
Not bad. It was very different and i couldn't decide what was going to happen next which was a nice change.