More in-depth film festival coverage than any other website!
Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About 

Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look77.78%
Average: 11.11%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 11.11%

1 review, 3 user ratings

Latest Reviews

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by Jay Seaver

Fat Man and Little Boy by Jack Sommersby

Harry & Son by Jack Sommersby

Shattered by Jack Sommersby

Deathstalker II by Jack Sommersby

Ambition by Jack Sommersby

Blackout by Jack Sommersby

Backfire by Jack Sommersby

Hit List, The (1993) by Jack Sommersby

Banker, The by Jack Sommersby

subscribe to this feed

Death Defying Acts
[] Buy posters from this movie
by brianorndorf

"Houdini faces his ultimate trick: Catherine Zeta-Jones"
4 stars

After the contact high that Christopher Nolan’s brooding magician yarn “The Prestige” cooked up a few years back, it’s absurdly disappointing to watch Gillian Armstrong’s “Death Defying Acts” fail to match the same beat. This is a romantic film, not antagonistic, but let’s be truthful here: if its period and presents acts of staged deception, it hard to top Nolan’s whirlwind thriller.

Trying to make ends meet in Scotland during the 1920s, Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”) work as Dickensian con artists, passing themselves off as psychics of atypical ability. Learning of Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) and his contest that will reward $10,000 to anyone who can determine the last words of his dead mother, Mary makes it her mission to find out the answer by getting close to Houdini when he arrives for a tour. Beguiled by her beauty and psychic skill, Houdini makes a play for Mary’s heart, revealing himself to the woman in ways he’s always kept hidden from view.

The crux of “Acts” rests in the suspicious relationship between Mary and Houdini. These are two seasoned illusionists who embark on a cautious relationship that requires some evolution of sincerity to properly coagulate. The characters are not accustomed to naked emotional declarations, and the film does a serviceable job attempting to crawl inside the mind of guarded personalities who’ve spent most of their lives playing extravagant roles to survive a cruel world.

“Acts” is not a mysterious picture, it’s a heartfelt one. Armstrong showcases a profound love for the smoky period production design and the crowd-dazzling majesty of Houdini, pushing the spectacle of trickery to the forefront of the film at important intervals. Pearce and Zeta-Jones make a handsome couple, but their acting highlights arrive in the sultry psychic/magic sequences, where Armstrong stands back and permits the cast time to internalize the labor of the con and the full-bodied release of triumph.

But where does “Acts” ultimately lead? Efforts to juggle the romance, mystery, and Houdini’s psychological divide leave the picture disoriented and truncated. The feature never inhales deep enough at any given point, always in a hurry to sort through the exposition and move on to the next conflict. The screenplay by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward attempts to keep the narrative focused on the monetary prize to coil the film up as something akin to a thriller, but the strongest drive of the movie is found in Houdini’s infatuation with Mary, and her growing crisis of conscience as contest time arrives.

“Death Defying Acts” lacks ideal mystery, but it evokes a romantic era with generous screentime, and the performances are accomplished all around. Armstrong even manages to unearth a note of disturbing motherly corruption to conclude on, adding a pleasing bite to the story. Perhaps the film isn’t a grandiose statement of splintered lives, but it’s an agreeable drama, best when it stays close to the decomposing heart of a professional liar.

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 07/25/08 22:14:54
[printer] printer-friendly format  
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/31/11 GEORGE B. FEIST I liked the atmosphere of the movie most and the sets and composites and GUY PEARCH 4 stars
11/13/08 R.W. Welch Has a certain quality to it, but vaguely artificial. 3 stars
Note: Duplicate, 'planted,' or other obviously improper comments
will be deleted at our discretion. So don't bother posting 'em. Thanks!
Your Name:
Your Comments:
Your Location: (state/province/country)
Your Rating:

Discuss this movie in our forum

  DVD: 28-Oct-2008


  DVD: 28-Oct-2008

Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About Australia's Largest Movie Review Database.
Privacy Policy | HBS Inc. | |   

All data and site design copyright 1997-2017, HBS Entertainment, Inc.
Search for
reviews features movie title writer/director/cast