The problem with most movies "based on a true story" is that a lot of the time, it's a bunch of baloney. But while Death Defying Acts is drawn from real events, it doesn't purport to be the real deal, ensuring viewers that a number of liberties have been taken in telling its tale. It's best to keep this in mind while watching this period drama, for earnest intentions are all the film can really fall back on, considering what an almost painfully predictable affair it turns out to be.
In early 20th century Edinburgh, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) make a living as phony psychics. But one fateful day, the pair end up encountering one of the biggest tricksters of all time — renowned escape artist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce), who happens to be little Benji's personal hero. Due to his skepticism of so-called spiritualists, Houdini is offering a $10,000 prize to anyone who can determine his dead mother's last words. Edinburgh is the latest stop on his search, and naturally, it's a challenge the McGarvie girls can't resist taking him up on. But as Mary starts to warm up to Houdini, in hopes of learning his secrets and sneaking off with the cash, a little complication arises. Mary ends up falling for the magic man, and with Benji goading her to stay the course, maintaining her ruse is going to be a harder job than she expected.
Magic is a funny thing to pull off in the movies. The results can either be as enchanting as The Illusionist or as plodding as Death Defying Acts. But it isn't anything in particular that spoils the film's potentially bewitching atmosphere. Its troubles can be traced to the fact that director Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Gray) and company don't really put their hearts into telling the story at hand. All too often does Death Defying Acts feel like it's on autopilot, cruising through the story without stopping to bless it with the slightest hint of depth or mystery.
Rather than deal Houdini's mystical debunking a serious hand, Armstrong uses it as the backdrop for a rather bland love affair. It's the same problem Pearl Harbor suffered; there's all this exciting stuff going on behind the scenes, but the filmmakers decided that two people making goo-goo eyes at each other is what audiences want most. The bare minimum of effort is used to tie the two elements together, promptly robbing the film of whatever profound impact it could have had.
But while the story is about as mystifying as a hard-boiled egg, Death Defying Acts tries making up for it with one spiffy production design. While not a complete stunner, the flick still looks plenty great, with loads of period flourishes to absorb viewers in the film's atmosphere. Some shots look even more gorgeous than others, especially those featuring Houdini performing his legendary underwater escapes.
Speaking of Houdini, Pearce (Memento) puts on a pretty solid show as the man himself. While the script puts him through the motions of a boring romance, Pearce gives a noble performance that at least hints at where more able hands could have guided the project. Last seen ruining relationships in Atonement, young Ronan remains on the tolerable side of plucky in her turn as Benji, though she still tends to unconvincingly act beyond her years. The real disappointment here is Zeta-Jones, a very talented actress who can't avoid bringing a sort of aloofness to her performance. You never buy her character for one second, simply because Zeta-Jones is far too glamorous to fit the part. The Scottish accent is a little dicey, too.
Most audiences might enjoy Death Defying Acts, due to the Houdini connection and a story that's been tailor-made for mass consumption. But don't expect it to be jaw-dropping entertainment, for those with such lofty expectations will see their hopes vanish into thin air.