A touch­ing af­ter­life

DEATH DE­FY­ING ACTS Di­rected by Gil­lian Arm­strong. Star­ring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Ti­mothy Spall, Saoirse Ro­nan PG cert, Storm, Belfast; Cineworld, Dublin, 97 min

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews - DON­ALD CLARKE

AR­RIV­ING with no sig­nif­i­cant pro­mo­tion, this curious lit­tle film from Gil­lian Arm­strong, the dis­tin­guished di­rec­tor of My Bril­liant Ca­reer, de­serves to re­ceive a lit­tle kind at­ten­tion. Brian Ward and Tony Grisoni, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor of Terry Gil­liam’s, have writ­ten a touch­ing fa­ble con­cern­ing Harry Hou­dini’s visit to Ed­in­burgh in 1926.

The great es­capol­o­gist and renowned de­bunker of psy­chics has es­tab­lished a bounty of $10,000 for any­body who can put him in touch with his late mother. Not sur­pris­ingly, ev­ery moun­te­bank in Scot­land turns up to ac­cept the chal­lenge, but only one act, a mother-and-daugh­ter team, man­ages to at­tract his at­ten­tion. The three be­come friends and a fleet­ing ro­mance de­vel­ops.

Death De­fy­ing Acts does have a slightly un­cer­tain look and sound to it. The abun­dant post-synch di­a­logue lends an un­earthly au­ral tex­ture, and the sec­ond-unit shots of Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle fail to dis­tract from the gen­eral ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the sets.

The ac­tors do, how­ever, make the piece live. Catherine Zeta-Jones may not be any­one’s idea of a slum­ming, down-at-heel con artist. But, play­ing the cal­cu­lat­ing mother, the Welsh trooper throws around enough Celtic charisma to con­vince us that Guy Pearce’s psy­cho­log­i­cally frag­ile Hou­dini might have his head turned. Ti­mothy Spall is weighty and dry as the ma­gi­cian’s cau­tious man­ager, and the un­stop­pable Saoirse Ro­nan brings for­mi­da­ble de­grees of nu­ance to the role of the (per­haps gen­uinely gifted) ju­nior psy­chic.

Death De­fy­ing Acts is, it is true, a thin sketch of a movie. But, fea­tur­ing a gen­uinely touch­ing clos­ing scene and demon­strat­ing an un­de­ni­able pas­sion for its cho­sen mi­lieu, the pic­ture does hang around in the brain af­ter the cred­its roll. Don’t let this one es­cape with­out a glance.

Fam­ily of psy­chics: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Saoirse Ro­nan

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