Release Date: July 11
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Writers: Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward
Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Saoirse Ronan
Studio/Run Time: The Weinstein Company, 97 mins.
Every now and then, films come out in waves. One year it feels like all Hollywood wants to churn out is disaster movies, the next, superhero sequels.In 2006, The Prestige, The Illusionist and Scoop all centered around stage magicians and were geared towards the art-house crowd.Focusing on the end of Harry Houdini’s (Guy Pearce) life, Death Defying Acts could have been lumped into that group and no one would have batted an eye.Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a vaudeville medium looking to swindle $10,000 off Houdini by telling him what his mother spoke to him on her deathbed.During this attempt they fall in love, much to the bemusement of Houdini’s manager and the medium’s child.
Few will argue that Death Defying Acts is a bad film.It’s competently acted, competently directed and, given the constraints of its story, competently written.But excepting experimental films, plot is a key reason we watch movies. Without an interesting one, an hour and a half of competent filmmaking becomes about an hour and 25 minutes of boredom.
What separates Death Defying Acts from its predecessors is that the earlier films all had a focus on plot that drove characters’ interior quests forward and let magic act as a metaphor for dealing with reality.Death Defying Acts forgets this aspect and, for better or for worse, throws all of its interest at characters.If the plot sounds in summary mostly like an excuse for a typical period melodrama, that’s because the magic and mysticism is merely a MacGuffin for telling the film’s conventional love story.
Because of this, the characters are well-conceived, and, additionally, well-acted.But with so little story behind them, their minor dalliances never become important enough on their own to warrant interest.Likewise, the film is very well-shot and at moments, beautiful, but nevertheless extremely sterile. Gillian Armstrong once again (Little Women) has an effortless gift for composition, but her reliance on this makes Death Defying Acts feel like it’s on autopilot.It takes an incredible level of craftsmanship to achieve this feeling, but here, this hands-off approach fails to inject passion where it in such dire need.