Ma­gi­cian mi­nus the magic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

HARRY Hou­dini ( 1874- 1926) was born Erik Weisz in Bu­dapest, the son of a rabbi who mi­grated to the US in 1878. Through the years, Ehrich, as he was called in the US ( a name that eas­ily mor­phed into Harry), be­came known as one of the great­est il­lu­sion­ists and es­cape artists of all time. He took his stage name from Jean Eu­gene Robert- Houdin, the great pi­o­neer of es­capes and il­lu­sions ( a Mu­seum of Magic in his home town of Blois in France re- cre­ates some of Hou­dini’s feats for tourists), and for sev­eral years he be­came the high­est paid vaudeville per­former in the US, a su­per­star.

He was also a pi­o­neer of avi­a­tion and flew across Aus­tralia when he toured this coun­try in 1910. He was fa­mous for es­cap­ing from hand­cuffs and wa­ter tanks — his Chi­nese wa­ter tor­ture act was one of his most cel­e­brated rou­tines — and af­ter the death of his beloved mother he car­ried on a cam­paign against medi­ums and spir­i­tu­al­ists, earn­ing the en­mity of Arthur Co­nan Doyle, cre­ator of Sher­lock Holmes, who was a be­liever in spir­i­tu­al­ism.

Hou­dini would be a mar­vel­lous sub­ject for a movie. He ac­tu­ally ap­peared in sev­eral films, in­clud­ing The Man from Be­yond ( 1922) and Hal­dane of the Se­cret Ser­vice ( 1923), and a highly fic­tion­alised ver­sion of his life was filmed as Hou­dini in 1953, with Tony Cur­tis. In the wake of re­cent ma­gi­cian films The Il­lu­sion­ist and The Pres­tige, the news that a new film about Hou­dini was to be made by Gil­lian Arm­strong was mouth- wa­ter­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately, Death De­fy­ing Acts is not a bi­og­ra­phy but a rather un­likely and to­tally fic­tion­alised love story in­volv­ing Hou­dini and a Scot­tish con artist ( Catherine Zeta- Jones). It’s not fair to com­plain that the sub­ject mat­ter of a film isn’t what you’d like it to be, but it’s in­escapably dis­ap­point­ing.

Pre­sum­ably Arm­strong and her writ­ers, Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, who are also cred­ited as co- pro­duc­ers, had no in­ten­tion of pro­vid­ing a fac­tual ac­count of an as­ton­ish­ing ca­reer. In­deed, we are told that the orig­i­nal screen­play didn’t in­volve the char­ac­ter of Hou­dini at all, which raises all sorts of ques­tions as to why an in­trigu­ing real- life char­ac­ter has been grafted on to a fic­tional story.

The film is set in 1926, the year of Hou­dini’s death. The real Hou­dini was 52 at the time and was de­voted to his wife, Bess, who was also his as­sis­tant. Bess doesn’t make an ap­pear­ance in this film; in­stead, Hou­dini has a pro­tec­tive man­ager, Mr Su­gar­man ( Ti­mothy Spall). We first see the es­cape artist in Syd­ney ( the Har­bour Bridge ap­pears to be near­ing com­ple­tion), where he per­forms yet an­other mirac­u­lous trick when, heav­ily chained and sub­merged un­der the wa­ter, he still man­ages to es­cape.

His next stop is Ed­in­burgh, where his visit is awaited with more than usual an­tic­i­pa­tion partly be­cause he has of­fered a re­ward of $ US10,000 to any­one who can re­veal to him his mother’s dy­ing words. The of­fer seems to have been a ruse to ex­pose the fak­ers and pub­licly hu­mil­i­ate them, but the re­ward money is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to Mary McGarvie ( Zeta- Jones) who, to­gether with her 11- year- old daugh­ter, Benji ( Saoirse Ro­nan), per­forms a dodgy psy­chic act ev­ery night in the mu­sic hall, billed as Princess Kali and her Dusky Dis­ci­ple. De­ter­mined to win the cash, Mary re­searches Hou­dini dili­gently while Benji in­fil­trates his ho­tel room. Un­ex­pect­edly, the ma­gi­cian falls in love with the con artist. Un­ex­pect­edly and, it has to be said, pretty un­con­vinc­ingly, be­cause there’s a dis­tinct lack of chem­istry in the re­la­tion­ship.

Death De­fy­ing Acts is a frus­trat­ing film on sev­eral lev­els, but it’s un­de­ni­ably a hand­some one thanks to the cin­e­matog­ra­phy of Haris Zam­bar­loukos and the pro­duc­tion de­sign of Gemma Jack­son. The mu­sic score by Cezary Sku­biszewski is also dis­tin­guished.

Al­though he doesn’t look much like pho­tos of Hou­dini, who was short in stature, had curly hair and a thick Hun­gar­ian ac­cent, Guy Pearce is oth­er­wise con­vinc­ing; you can be­lieve that this man could achieve th­ese mag­i­cal es­capes even though they seem to be tak­ing a toll on him. Zeta- Jones cer­tainly looks the part, but is less con­vinc­ing as the con artist who thinks she can trick a trick­ster; and young Ro­nan, so chill­ingly good in Atone­ment, demon­strates here that the ear­lier per­for­mance was no flash in the pan.

Given the right ma­te­rial — as she had in such im­por­tant films as My Bril­liant Ca­reer, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Lit­tle Women and her doc­u­men­tary films — Arm­strong can be a re­mark­able di­rec­tor. But Death De­fy­ing Acts isn’t among her best work; de­spite its many qual­i­ties, there’s a ba­sic lack of con­vic­tion that con­stantly un­der­mines it.

* * * CON­VIC­TION isn’t ex­actly paramount in Van­tage Point, a breath­less con­spir­acy the­ory thriller set in Sala­manca, Spain, but filmed in Mex­ico City. The pres­i­dent of the US ( William Hurt) is shot when he’s about to make a speech about ter­ror­ism in a city square in front of thou­sands of peo­ple; the shoot­ing is fol­lowed by a mas­sive ex­plo­sion. The in­ci­dent is re­peated sev­eral times from sev­eral dif­fer­ent points of view: the television crew ( led by a brit­tle Sigour­ney Weaver) cov­er­ing the event; one of the pres­i­dent’s body­guards ( Den­nis Quaid); an Amer­i­can tourist ( For­est Whi­taker), who films ev­ery­thing on his video cam­era; a Span­ish cop ( Ed­uardo Nor­iega); and fi­nally the pres­i­dent.

Each time the cru­cial scenes are re­played, from dif­fer­ent an­gles, new clues to what is re­ally go­ing on are in­tro­duced, but even­tu­ally di­rec­tor Pete Travis and writer Barry L. Levy stop tan­ta­lis­ing the au­di­ence and throw cau­tion to the wind with a car chase through the streets of the city that must rank as one of the best se­quences of its kind.

The plot­ting is con­vo­luted and tries a bit too hard to be clever. Ul­ti­mately, it’s all rather silly, and yet, if ever a film qual­i­fied in the cat­e­gory of guilty plea­sure, it’s this one, not only be­cause of the ex­cel­lent cast but also be­cause of the sheer skill with which the whole thing is put to­gether. If I had to choose be­tween this and The Bourne Ul­ti­ma­tum, I’d choose this ev­ery time.

Mak­ing a meal of it: Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta- Jones in the dis­ap­point­ing Death De­fy­ing Acts

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.