Sunday, February 14, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Death Defying Acts (2008)

There are few directors who can capture the fragile nuances of human emotion quite like Gillian Armstrong. In Mrs. Soffel (1984), she dipped into the deep well of longing that a repressed wife (Diane Keaton) developed for an incarcerated man (Mel Gibson). In High Tide (1987), Armstrong elicited, with great subtlety and sadness, the unrequited yearnings a young daughter (Claudia Karvan) had for a mother (Judy Davis) who had abandoned her years earlier. In her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1994), Armstrong went even farther than the previous adaptations of the classic novel. She captured, with both compassion and insight, the strong family bond of the March family while delicately illustrating the diverse desires and hopes of the growing sisters. In her best work, Armstrong’s great gift is for working between (and within) the lines of the story.

Her latest film, Death Defying Acts (2008), is also about emotional bonds – between mother and daughter; men and women – only it’s not nearly as cohesive, or as satisfyingly worked out. Yet there is still something shimmering about this picture, something ghostly that helps compensate for some of the movie’s dead spots. Part of the picture’s alchemy has to do with the fact that the story is about magic – both what is real and what is fake. Magician Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) is visiting Edinburgh, Scotland in 1926 to offer $10,000 to anyone who can help him contact his dead mother and reveal to him her last words. Thirteen years after her death, Houdini is still possessed by the fact that he wasn’t at her side when she passed away. Meanwhile, two con artists, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), have been desperately making their living fleecing customers with a bogus psychic show. (While Mary performs the tricks, Benji sneakily gathers information from the audience needed to help her mother pull off the scam.) When Houdini comes to town, they immediately zero in on the possibility of winning the money. What ensues is a romantic entanglement between Mary and Houdini that’s interrupted by the knowledge that Benji may possess magical gifts that go far beyond scamming.

Part of the failing of Death Defying Acts is the lack of mystery in Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since her lively appearance years ago in The Mask of Zorro (1998), she has been little more than a beautiful blank on the screen. Her earnest approach to her role here makes her seem somewhat indistinct and bland – not believable qualities for a scam artist. Her romantic encounter with Houdini, while intitially part of the seductive rouse, also simplifies the story’s strengths by overshadowing the film’s core dynamic of her relationship with her daughter. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, has magic coming out of her fingertips. She equals her startling work as the young precocious Briony Tallis in Atonement (2008). Ronan plays Benji with a mischievous zeal, like a Dickens' gamine, a ploy that masks her adolescent frustrations towards her mother. This young actress performs with such imagination and lyricism that you wish Carol Reed had lived to direct her. Pearce’s Houdini is somewhat stylized, but he doesn’t turn the magician into a cartoon. Unlike the horribly mannered work Pearce has done since his satisfying turn as the straight-arrow cop in L.A. Confidential (1997), Pearce does some nimble work here. He reveals Houdini to be a man who believes that performing magic can cheat the reality of death - except the death that continues to haunt him.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Saoirse Ronan
Death Defying Acts gets a lot of its facts wrong (for example, Houdini didn’t die in Montreal, it was in Detroit), but Armstrong’s film is strongest when she shows us how the spirit of magic is sometimes inseparable from human yearning. The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is also so beautifully textured so that the characters appear like spectral figures laminated on the screen. The script, by Tony Grison and Brian Ward, might not provide Gillian Armstrong with a full deck, but in Death Defying Moments she still knows how to play the hand that’s dealt her.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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