Edinburgh, 1926. Mary McGarvie (Zeta-Jones) scrapes a living posing as a psychic with the help of her young daughter Benji (Ronan). When escapologist Harry Houdini (Pearce) arrives in town, Mary accepts his challenge to prove her abilities by proclaiming
There’s something inherently fascinating about being let in on the secrets of a con artist, and so Death Defying Acts gets off to a flying start. Fraudulent psychic Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sends her tomboy daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) off to pick the pockets of a man due to attend her stage show. The inscription on a stolen watch leads her to the library, where she flirts with the assistant to gain access to local files. Come the show, and hey presto, she wows the gentleman with a detailed message from his dearly departed wife.
It’s a fun opener that’s enlivened by a typically spirited, sexy performance from Zeta-Jones and another star turn from Atonement’s Ronan. You’d think that the arrival of Guy Pearce as the great Houdini would be the icing on the cake of this fictionalised tale, but it’s not. The tone shifts from cynical con-comedy to romantic drama, but the chemistry between Pearce and Zeta-Jones is conspicuously absent and the dialogue largely uninspired.
There’s some enjoyment in Benji and Mary’s attempts to glean information on Houdini by any means possible, but this is periodically interrupted by stilted exchanges between the two stars. We have to be informed that the pair are falling for each other: “That’s not crazy… that’s love,” comments Benji while watching them dance together. This doesn’t give us enough reason to root for romance between a married man and a fraud. And anyone hoping for serious insight into the tricks of the famed escapologist will be disappointed: neither Pearce nor the script peel back the layers of this mysterious performer.
All that said, Death Defying Acts manages to be mildly entertaining. It’s visually pleasing, whether drinking in views of the Edinburgh landscape or Zeta-Jones’ shapely form. Timothy Spall makes a welcome appearance as Houdini’s manager, frowning on Houdini’s friendship with Mary while developing a companionship of convenience with fellow sidekick Benji. And given the current proliferation of TV psychics, this is undeniably topical: one can’t imagine it’ll be popular with the like of Derek Acorah. While it’s an interesting take on Houdini’s real-life scepticism about paranormal claims, the timing is out: Houdini would have been 52 in 1926, and Pearce certainly doesn’t look that. Fanciful indeed.
Despite the confused tone and underwhelming romance, this pretty little picture entertains in the main thanks to the intriguing subject matter and top turns from Zeta-Jones and Ronan.