Magician minus the magic
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