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Death Defying Acts


Stars: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Saoirse Ronan, Timothy Spall, Anthony O'Donnell, Raymond Griffiths

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Given Armstrong’s reputation as something of an artfilm director (My Brilliant Career, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Oscar and Lucinda) this handsome-looking but anorexic offering comes as a major disappointment. It doesn’t help either that Tony Grisoni’s screenplay is on the level of an average made-for-television movie, miscasting Jones as a Scottish music hall mentalist who, abetted by her possibly psychic daughter Ronan, sets out to scam Pearce’s legendary escapologist Harry Houdini when he visits Edinburgh in 1926, a scam that falls apart when – very unconvincingly – romance develops between Jones and Pearce.

Ronan, who stole Atonement from Keira Knightley, commits more dramatic grand larceny here, giving the best performance in the film. Pearce is excellent, too and Spall has his amusing moments (some of them, admittedly, inadvertent and arising from his ‘interesting’ American accent). But Jones, while looking luscious and lovely in her Egyptian dance number in the music hall, sadly provides a vacuum at the dramatic heart of the film. Her performance is shallow – there’s not a trace of chemistry between her and Pearce – and her Scottish accent, like her earnest but mostly failed attempts to act in depth, is more laughable than anything else.

Armstrong lays on the period detail with a steam shovel but impressive visual trappings aren’t enough to save the enterprise. If you really feel impelled to see it, remember you have already paid something towards the production since, once again, former BBC films supremo David M Thompson helped fund Death Defying Acts with your licence fee.

Alan Frank

UK/Australia 2007. UK Distributor: Lionsgate. Colour.
96 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 10 Aug 2008