Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts (The Weinstein Co.) is a minor but satisfying entry in the "what if" historical-fantasy genre spoofed in that old SNL skit, "What if George Washington had a robot friend?" Such movies wedge imagined characters and events into the lives of historic figures. What if Sigmund Freud treated Sherlock Holmes for cocaine addiction? What if H.G. Wells really did build a time machine and Jack the Ripper got into it and traveled to the present day? I'll admit to a total weakness for this particular brand of baloney. All a "what if" movie needs to win me over are some lush costumes and production design, a smart casting choice or two, and a really ridiculous basic idea. Death Defying Acts obliges on all fronts.
In 1926 Edinburgh, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) works as a vaudeville psychic, dancing in a scanty costume as she summons the spirits of audience members' relatives through barely concealed trickery. She's assisted by her 11-year-old daughter, Benji (Saoirse Ronan), an able apprentice in the art of the short con. Watching a movie newsreel, Mary and Benji learn that the great American escape artist Houdini has offered $10,000 to any self-proclaimed clairvoyant who can guess his mother's last words. (Though this contest is fictional, the real Houdini did have an obsession with exposing mediums as frauds and a fixation on his mother.) Mary decides that when Houdini (Guy Pearce) comes to town for an upcoming engagement, they'll sneak into his hotel room, dig through his personal effects, and piece together the mystery of that final maternal utterance.
Mary and Benji's half-baked scam is soon exposed, but Houdini takes a shine to the scruffy, resourceful pair and even believes (or is he just pretending to believe?) in Mary's paranormal gifts—a faith not shared by his cranky manager, Mr. Sugarman (the ever-welcome Timothy Spall). Houdini sets up the McGarvies in a posh hotel suite near his own, encouraging them to spy all they want, confident that they'll never uncover those last words. Meanwhile, he expensively courts the dubious Mary, who can't figure out the great magician's motives. Surely it's not possible that he's actually falling for her?
Unfortunately, he is. The film's pace bogs down as the capers of the first half are replaced by the romance of the second. Pearce, an ethereal string bean of an actor, looks nothing like the squat, solid Houdini, but he attacks the role of the troubled escape artist with his signature intensity. Too bad Zeta-Jones wouldn't have onscreen chemistry with Pierre Curie himself. She's the most curiously sexless of the great onscreen beauties. Still, Z-J does have a bit of the vaudevillean in her—before her current incarnation as serene Hollywood matron, she was a hoofer in the West End production of A Chorus Line—and she has fun with the scenes in which she and Houdini flirt by exposing the tricks of their respective trades.
The Australian director Gillian Armstrong is best known here for launching the young Judy Davis on the world in My Brilliant Career (1979). No such launch pad is needed for Saoirse Ronan, the 13-year-old Irish actress who already had her breakout role last year as the chilly little psychopath in Atonement. But even more than in Atonement, Ronan struck me in this film as a major talent who may be able to make the transition from child to adult actress. (Next year, she'll play the lead role in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones.) Her face is so vibrant and responsive, you want to grab her and cast her as every famous heroine of girls' literature—Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, Mary in The Secret Garden—before she hits puberty.
Even if you loved the recent miniwave of period films about magicians (The Illusionist and The Prestige),you won't necessarily fall for Death Defying Acts. It's gentler and hokier than those movies, less concerned with the mechanics of magic than it is with the psychology of the men or women behind the tricks (and it doesn't have a lot new to say about that, either). Still, there's something touching about this movie's belief in its own outlandish central premise, which comes down, in the end, to a bit of stargazing wish-fulfillment. What if Harry Houdini came to town, and a two-bit scammer managed to trick the ultimate trickster into falling in love?