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Gillian Armstrong, Guy Pearce, Death Defying Acts Gillian Armstrong, Guy Pearce, Death Defying Acts
GILLIAN ARMSTRONG HAS ALWAYS MADE FILMS ABOUT STRONG AND INTERESTING GIRLS AND WOMEN. SHE HAS ALSO STRADDLED THE GENRE DIVIDE, SWITCHING EASILY BETWEEN FEATURES AND DOCUMENTARIES. FROM HER EARLY BEGINNINGS TRACKING AUSSIE TEENAGERS IN FOURTEEN’S GOOD, EIGHTEEN’S BETTER, SHE LAUNCHED JUDY DAVIS IN MY BRILLIANT CAREER AND THEN—AFTER STARSTRUCK, MRS SOFFEL, HIGH TIDE—SHE WAS GRABBED BY HOLLYWOOD, DABBLING IN LITTLE WOMEN, BEFORE RETURNING TO AUSTRALIAN SHORES WITH OSCAR AND LUCINDA AND, LAST YEAR, HER WONDERFULLY ENIGMATIC AND RICH DOCUMENTARY UNFOLDING FLORENCE: THE MANY LIVES OF FLORENCE BROADHURST.

Armstrong’s last feature, made six years ago, featured Cate Blanchett as the title heroine Charlotte Gray, a young Scot who joins the French Resistance during World War II. Her new film Death Defying Acts, a co-production with the UK, seems to take a diversion in that the focus is apparently the great escape artist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) but, as always, Armstrong is really more interested in the womenfolk: a mother and daughter team, Mary and Benji (Catherine Zeta-Jones and the exceptional newcomer Saoirse Ronan, outstanding in Atonement) who, like Charlotte, are working undercover to dismantle the hero narrative.

There’s been a rush of releases in the past year about the lives and inner/outer workings of magicians, a sudden urge to reveal the apparatus: Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in The Prestige, Edward Norton in The Illusionist and, best of all, the comic genius of Will Arnett as G.O.B, who manages to kill a lot of doves, in Arrested Development. Here, the film is as much about the fame as the magic. It begins with the camera beneath the surface, all calm, as Houdini attempts to release himself from chains underwater. His stillness and presence as he waits, pushing his physical limits, is counterpoint to the chaos and frenzy outside as people think he must have drowned. He finally emerges triumphant, with Pearce’s beautifully toned body, to become a God of the deep. It’s the first of many visually spectacular scenes, often filmed through glass or water—with a strong score by Cezary Skubiszewski (who was also composer for Lawrence Johnston’s Night, see page 19).

Throughout the film Armstrong directs Houdini like a rock star, crowd-surfing into Edinburgh on the throes of others’ desire. He invites strangers to punch him in the stomach—even when he coughs blood later in his hotel room. Houdini’s story appealed to Armstrong because “it was not just about his act but about how he sold his act. He was a great self-promoter...he was the world’s first superstar.” As the plot kicks in, we learn that Houdini has an unlikely, even kinky attachment to his mother. He states his ambition is to “be worthy of the woman who bore me” and offers $10,000 to any psychic who can find her in the afterlife and reveal her last words before she died. Mary and Benji step in to take up the challenge. Whether strolling the streets stealing men’s watches or performing a dubious music-hall act, “Princess Kali and her Dusky Disciple”—where Mary connects with the ‘other side’—this mother and daughter team are masters of deception.

With a voiceover by Benji we see the action from the child’s perspective, and this is when the film starts to trolley downhill. The narrative is cloying and reveals too much too soon. Writer Tony Grisoni says the script “started from the idea that at the centre of any magical act there’s always an audience that’s desperate for the magic to be real.” But Mary is all and only about artifice; she speaks of her ability to “pluck a character off a shelf and just about manage to convince herself.” However, in this role Zeta-Jones doesn’t work any magic on us and it’s hard to believe Houdini would have fallen for her charms—especially as in another Freudian, even soap opera twist, it’s revealed she bears a stunning resemblance to Houdini’s mother when she was young; and so he makes her wear his mother’s wedding dress, to channel her psychic energy.

Although Pearce gives a fierce and sensitive performance, there’s just no chemistry between him and Zeta-Jones and strangely, in the end, that’s the focus of the film—a battle of wits, a love story, without the desire. After a sloppy and sentimental ending where it feels like the script has run out of ideas and the committee has signed off on a mishmash, I wanted to change the focus back from the women to Houdini. Apparently he wasn’t even in the original drafts of the script but, with Pearce’s strength and charisma, he remains a fascinating character who stays locked in manacles, holding his breath underwater, never quite reaching the surface.


Death Defying Acts, director Gillian Armstrong, producers Chris Curling, Marian MacGowan, writers Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, editor Nicholas Beauman, composer Cezary Skubiszewski

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 23

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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