Death Defying Acts

  • PG
  • Gillian Armstrong (2007)
  • UK / Aus
  • 92 min
Film Review
Reviewed By
3 out of 5

At first glance, Death Defying Acts seems a fairly conventional romantic drama about a scheming music-hall psychic (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce), the target of one of her cons. But it becomes something darker in the hands of Australian director Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Gray), who sets the story in Edinburgh in 1926, during Houdini's world tour. The escapologist is an international celebrity and a showbiz trickster in his own right, but he's also consumed by grief over the death of his mother, and offers a big reward to anyone who can contact her from beyond the grave. When Mary McGarvie (Zeta-Jones) and her daughter (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan) take up the challenge, Houdini develops an attraction for Mary, who it turns out bears a strong resemblance to his mother. The historic Edinburgh backdrop to Armstrong's film sometimes looks like a theatre set, though that seems curiously apt for a tale about deception and illusion. A more serious flaw is the lack of chemistry between the two stars. However, the mix of darkness and light, life and death, and fact and fiction, marks it out as an unusual and intriguing period piece.

Plot Summary

Period romantic drama starring Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Timothy Spall. Fake spiritualist Mary McGarvie makes a play for intrepid escapologist Harry Houdini in the hope that she and her 11-year-old daughter Benji can profit from a cash reward Houdini has offered to anyone who can reveal the dying words of his mother.

Cast and crew


Harry Houdini
Guy Pearce
Mary McGarvie
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Mr Sugarman
Timothy Spall
Saoirse Ronan
Frankey Martyn
Leith Romeo
Malcolm Shields
Leith Romeo's wife
Leni Harper
Mr Robertson
Ralph Riach
Flower-stall seller
Olivia Darnley


Gillian Armstrong

Other Information

Theatrical distributor: 
Lions Gate UK Ltd
Contains some violence and swearing.
Available on DVD
Released 8 Aug 2008
Certificate PG
Lions Gate Home Entertainment UK Ltd