The medium of escape

Filmmakers seem allergic to question marks in the titles of their films—take, for instance, What’s Love Got to Do with It and, now on circuit, Why Did I Get Married. Is this because the American audience, which so many movies aspire to capture, gets edgy when a film’s name includes punctuation?

It seems, too, that filmmakers are largely allergic to hyphens. The 40 Year Old Virgin had to do without them for its theatrical release, which doubtless helped make it a hit, though for the DVD release it got not one but two, making it The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Like Quentin Tarantino’s execrable Death Proof, Gillian Armstrong’s new film, Death Defying Acts, should have a hyphen in its title. Thankfully, though, that is about all they have in common.

Armstrong is the Australian director who reached an international audience with My Brilliant Career in 1979, and 10 years ago filmed the adaptation of fellow Australian Peter Carey’s brilliant novel Oscar and Lucinda. Not to try to limit Armstrong to Australian-related stories (she appears to have done well with the remake of Little Women), but her new film, Death Defying Acts, is non-Australian except for one of its leads—and feels slightly arbitrary. From what one can google it seems the script was knocking about the various hells of Hollywood for some time, then it got rewritten to include the figure of the world-famous escapologist, Harry Houdini, and finally it got made.

The idea is this. It’s 1926. Houdini is touring the world, as he did, and is about to arrive in Edinburgh. This generates much excitement for Mary and Benji McGarvie, who work as a mother-daughter team of exotic music-hall clairvoyant and her assistant (the latter in blackface). When not on stage, they are researching their allegedly psychic revelations through the medium of carefully stolen information. Houdini, however, is busy waging war on clairvoyants. He is determined to debunk these purveyors of false hope and to do so he is offering a large amount of money to anyone who can put him in touch with his dead mother. He is confident that all the likely claimants are frauds.

Mary and Benji make a bee-line for Houdini when he comes to town; they take up his gauntlet, so to speak. Despite his skepticism about clairvoyants, Houdini is very interested in Mary—doubtless because she’s attractive and spunky. He may want more from her than simply to prove that she’s a charlatan. At the same time, Houdini’s manager, Mr Sugarman (an always characterful Timothy Spall), is keeping a very sharp eye on the panhandling female pair; he will do all he can to prevent any harm coming to his famous charge (and cash cow). Obviously this storyline sets up a range of complications and options for the narrative to play itself through or out, and so it duly does.

Given her sterling work in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (it seems so long ago) and the lack of such outings in recent memory, it’s good to see Catherine Zeta-Jones—for it is she—doing some good work in Death Defying Acts. Her role as Mary McGarvie is hardly a big stretch or a dive into the depths of coruscating emotion, but she’s sexy and funny and sympathetic. As daughter Benji, who becomes the observing consciousness of the story, Saoirse Ronan (who played the young Briony in Atonement) brings a very apt otherworldly quality to her performance. The dependable Guy Pearce, as Houdini, has the muscles and the expected charisma—as well as the weird hair-do.

It’s all engaging enough while it proceeds, but one leaves Death Defying Acts feeling that perhaps something was missing. It certainly looks good, filmed with lush attention to period and to detail, to both the glamour of Houdini’s world and the grit of the McGarvies’. But the film never quite gets into top gear. Despite the charms of the actors and a few excellent scenes that really do rivet one’s attention, the impression that it’s neither here nor there is, well, inescapable.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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