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
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