Harry Houdini takes an on-screen bow in Death Defying Acts... Could it be magic? According to the director, no.
Two years after The Prestige and The Illusionist made us wonder if magicians were going to supersede superheroes as the film protagonist of choice, Death Defying Acts comes along trailing a haze of negative buzz. So, Aussie director Gillian Armstrong, was your aim to out-magic The Prestige? “People classify this as another magic film but it’s not,” says Armstrong. “It’s a love story with four people that asks the question, ‘Is there something on the other side?’ It’s about trickery, but it’s not a magic film.”
So in the absence of duelling stage magicians or revenge-driven mystery, what sleight of hand does Death Defying Acts perform? Well, for one, it features Catherine Zeta-Jones and Atonement sensation, Saoirse Ronan, as mother-daughter Edinburgh grifters who tread the boards to fake a music-hall psychic act.
“She’s a hustler, a survivor,” Zeta-Jones tells Buzz about her character Mary McGarvie. “I was fascinated by this woman who has a huge star of the time – he was like the ultimate rock star – come into her life.”
That “rock star” would be Harry Houdini. Guy Pearce plays the legendary escape artist – and after watching Pearce pull off his brilliant Andy Warhol impersonation in Factory Girl (“Someone said to me, ‘That’s the best Warhol performance ever in the worst Warhol movie ever’,” chuckles Pearce), he’s great casting. But! Once again, Armstrong douses any notion this might be a Houdini biopic, calling it a “What If” story.
The lack of historical accuracy worried Pearce at first – never mind that Houdini was squat and Jewish – but he embraced him as a fractured, charismatic man plagued by personal demons. Pearce also immersed himself in magic lessons, spent six months in the gym to mimic Houdini’s fearsomely fit physique and trained with an English free-diving champion to hold his breath underwater for two-and-a-half minutes.
The film’s story uses events that took place during Houdini’s 1926 tour of Britain. Harry’s other great passion was exposing pyschic quacks and supernatural charlatans and he offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could channel his late mother’s dying words. Step forward Zeta-Jones’ Scottish vamp, who thinks she can snare the escapologist with a shake of her snake(oil)-hips and winkle the secret out of him.
Having dipped themselves into Houdini’s world, do Death’s players think he’s right about psychic phenomena being a bunch of hooey? “How can we know?” says Armstrong, playing Mrs Sensible yet again. “I don’t know how anybody could say, ‘No, there’s nothing else’ with certainty,” says Pearce. “I’m open to anything. There’s got to be more that we as human beings haven’t evolved to yet.. .” “I smelled a ghost in the theatre once,” Zeta-Jones chips in. “Did it pass one?” asks Pearce. “No, it did not!” shrieks Zeta-Jones, laughing. “It smelled of lavender…”