Australian Cinema
(MCC 231)

Assignment: 2

Name: Shima Shafinaz Bt Mohd Razak
Student ID: 30436864
Lecturer: Garry Gillard

Part 1: Film Information
Runtime                                 :           97 Min
Country                                  :           UK/Australia
Language                             :           English
Genre                                     :           Drama/Romance/Thriller
Filming Locations                :           Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, UK
                                                            Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

The Cast:

Catherine Zeta-Jones         :           Mary McGarvie
Saoirse Ronan                     :           Benji McGarvie
Guy Pearce                           :           Harry Houdini
Timothy Spall                       :           Mr. Sugarman
Chris Wilson                         :           Reporter
Dodger Phillips                    :           Voice of the Press
Aileen O'Gorman                 :           Effie-Elderly Seamstress
Frankey Martyn                    :           Rose
Cloe Mackie                         :           Psychic Twin One
Holly Mackie                         :           Psychic Twin Two
Silvia Lombardo                  :           Usherette
Miles Jupp                            :           Ventriloquist
Tim Frost                               :           Tap Dancer
Martin Fisher                                    :           Concierge
James Fiddy                         :           American Assistant
Mackay Crawford                :           Young Reporter
Aaron Brown                                    :           Sugarman's Assistant
Jack Bailey                           :           The Red Haired Pilot

The Crew:

Director                                  :           Gillian Armstrong
Writer                                     :           Tony Grisoni
                                                            Brian Ward
Associate Producer             :           Linda Sophie Chiu
Producer                               :           Chris Curling
                                                            Marian Macgowan
Executive Producer             :           Kirk D'Amico
                                                            Lucas Foster
                                                            Dan Lupovitz
                                                            Marcia Nasatir
                                                            David M. Thompson
Co-producer                         :           Tony Grisoni
                                                            Joe Oppenheimer
                                                            Brian Ward
Line Producer                      :           Guy Tannahil
Assistant Producer              :           Celia Richards

Original Music                      :           Cezary Skubiszewski
Cinematographer                :           Haris Zambarloukos
Film Editor                             :           Nicholas Beauman
Casting                                  :           Gail Stevens
Production Design              :           Gemma Jackson
Art Director                            :           Anja Muller
Set Decorator                       :           Anna Lynch-Robinson
Makeup Department           :           Tricia Cameron
                                                            Mandy Gold
                                                            Suzanne Jansen
                                                            Graham Johnston
                                                            Denise Kum
                                                            Fiona Leech
                                                            Louila Sheppard
Production Manager           :           Ben Rimmer
Special Effect Supervisor   :           Stuart Brisdon
Visual Effect Supervisor     :           James Rogers
                                                            Richard Van Dn Bergh
Stunts                                     :           Richard Bradshaw
                                                            Jim Dowdall
Costume Supervisor           :           Amanda Keale
Music Supervisor                 :           Liz Gallacher
Production Companies      :           Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC)
                                                            Myriad Pictures
                                                            BBC Films
                                                            Zephyr Films
                                                            Macgowan Films
                                                            Film Finance
Distributor                             :           Dendy Films

Release Dates                     :           13 September 2007 (Canada-Toronto Film Festival)
                                                            10 February 2008    (Germany-European Film market)
                                                            13 March 2008         (Australia)
                                                            20 March 2008         (Israel)
                                                            27 March 2008         (South Korea)
                                                            28 March 2008         (Brazil)
                                                            4 April 2008              (Spain)
                                                            24 April 2008                        (Greece)

Interview with Filmmaker
“Interview: Gillian Armstrong”

            “It is about trickery and fakery, and Catherine and Guy are both playing people hiding behind masks. That’s what intrigued me about the story that you think it’s going to be about these two con artists but then it switches into a love story. So I liked the script, because with so many American things that I read I know how it’s going to end 10 pages in.” (Gillian Armstrong, director)



Keller, Louise “The World of Film in Australia – On the Internet”

Armstrong pulls yet another trick out of the hat with Cezary Skubiszewski's magical score and Gemma Jackson's production design is a treat.

Urban, L. Andrew, “The World of Film in Australia – On the Internet”

            Armstrong's visual style of story telling (stylishly edited by Nicholas Beauman) is highly effective, generating emotional intensity and a satisfying resolution.


Hall, Sandra Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 2008

            Period pictures are tricky and this one is so stagey that the past really does seem like another country, where emotions are muffled by time and the events before you can only be viewed from a polite distance.


Harvey, Dennis. Variety Weekly Edition, 1 October 2007

            Gillian Armstrong-directed pic starring Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a lady out to snare him is a handsome contraption that's never very engaging, let alone convincing. Theatrical returns look to be just fair, with improved prospects in ancillary.


Hawker, Phillippa. The Age, 13 March 2008

         Death Defying Acts remains graceful throughout, it looks handsome, its performances are assured, and its subject matter is intriguing and full of possibilities.

    Wilson, Stuart. forum. 19 March 2008

            Gillian Armstrong's film - for the most part - manages to strike the right balance between the mundane and the magical, and if you forgive the rather crappy special effects, it is a beautiful picture.

    Buckmaster, Luke. 25 March 2008

            There is no doubt Gilliam Armstrong is an accomplished and exciting director. She was obviously inspired to tell a story built on the idea that Harry Houdini was a prisoner of his own emotional cage.

    Pastridge, Des. The Courier Mail.           

            There’s both romance and suspense in the movie, and Pearce adds to hic CV with the conviction he brings to the role, and his comitment to the stunts he has to perform as Houdini.

    Rigg, Julie. ABC Radio National. 13 March 2008

            Ronan, Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce performed as well as the script allows. Better, in the case of Ronan. A pity about the story. It's pretty, but no cigar.

On-Line Presence

            As Death Defying Acts just came out to the screen recently, it has a limited on-line presence in the web literature. As I searched for Death Defying Acts on Google, the most prominent websites that were independently focussing on the film were:

The Internet Movie Database:
Zephyr Films:  
Myriad Pictures:     

            While others were websites which showcased links to the film in a form of reviews or the trailer of the upcoming film.

Movies Online:
Wild about Movies:
You Tube:

Part 2: Critical Review of Film and Literature
Set in the 1920’s, the times where impossible things as magic and extraordinary matter seemed real, Harry Houdini was a favourite of the crowd as he does his stunts and unlock himself from every obstacle that no ordinary man can do. However, the world was only seeing the hard hitting pain resistant man, who seemed fearless and proud of the man he is.

After his mother’s death, Harry Houdini never forgive himself as he was not present at the side of his mother when she took her last breath. Nevertheless, he turns these regrets into another kind of popularity show as he offers $10,000 to anyone who is able to contact his deceased mother to reveal her last words to him and a chance to have a look at the afterlife. Soon as he was on his world tour, he finds all types of psychics, witchcraft and actors trying to win themselves the prize, unfortunately Houdini gets his way around in proving them wrong and uncovers their lies.

With the prize still up for grabs, impoverished and uneducated con artist Mary McGarvie and her daughter Benji whom Houdini calls the “dusky deciphal” aims their eyes on the prize as Houdini tours into their home ground, Edinburgh. Mary and Benji have fooled a lot of their audience at a show in a hotel where they con the audience into believing that they reach out to their deceased loved ones when actually their methods were stealing and gathering information on that specific audience prior to them coming to the show. 

Once Houdini met Mary McGarvie, he was quickly amazed and blind by her charms and subtle way and lured him into believing her. Nonetheless, his accompanied manager Mr.Sugarman was not impressed and noticed immediately the con artist that Mary McGarvie is. He tries very hard in convincing Houdini of her fakeness, unfortunately, Houdini seems not only to be convinced of her psychic vision of the afterlife but he is also enchanted by her beauty and charms that he seems to want her affection. Sugarman furious of the idea offers a deal with Mary to flee the scene but they still won’t do so. Benji realizes that it is no longer of the money that matters for her mother; she realizes that her mother is falling in love with the great Harry Houdini.

As Benji and Sugarman realizes that there is nothing that they both could do to stop this affair from going any further, they help each other by Sugarman giving Mary the information of Houdini’s deceased mother and the real encounter that Houdini had with his late mother or the lack thereof. As the day came when Mary had to decipher the last words of Houdini’s mother, he made her wear his mother’s wedding dress. As she went into the public eye to perform the experiment, she was unable to do it as she realized that Houdini did not actually love her, but he just saw her as the exact replica of his mother and that is why he was attracted to her.

She attempted to leave the experiment, when suddenly Benji who was sitting quietly at the side of the stage fell on the ground and was somewhat possessed as she started speaking in another language and her voice became different. Houdini shocked at her state quickly went to her side and that is when Benji uttered his real name, the one which his only his mother calls him of, “Erich” she was speaking in partly German and partly English asking where he is and why he is not with her. The crowd shocked with the event, was then confirmed by Houdini of his selfishness for not being there during his mother’s last breath and that she did not say anything to him, as the scientist opens the blank note he left in secure box all this while. The McGarvies are rewarded the $10,000. Mary is disgruntled because she believes Harry doesn't love her as she perceived. When he says he does, they become romantically involved before Harry Houdini embarks on another set of world tours. During his travels after, the lunges to the stomach that he dares to the public to do as he says he is unbreakable was then done by a “red-haired prankster” who punches when he is not ready for it and thus ruptures his appendix and killed him.

Personal Commentary
Death Defying Act is a semi-fiction film of the life of Harry Houdini and how the lives of con artist are about. The plot is mainly straight forward with its focus on only these four main characters throughout the film. The awkward change between a thriller drama into a love story was not much an appeal to me as it was very clichéd. In my opinion as we knew of the fact that Houdini was not there when his mother died, the rest of the film became somewhat dull and that it left me waiting for more twists to make the storyline more interesting. Unfortunately, it carried on with that specific storyline and never changed after.
However, the performances by Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Timothy Spall and Saoirse Ronan were very believable and good. Given the fact that Pearce also did most of the stunts himself makes his characterization in the film very real. At times, the accent that was spoken by Benji and Mary was not clear and it made it hard for me to understand the dialogue. The cinematography done by Haris Zambarloukos was really astounding as it made me feel that we were in Edinburgh with its cold misty skies. The original music done by Cezary Skubiszewski was also a delight as it fits perfectly with the whole scenario.
In my opinion, it may have not been one of the best from the Gillian Armstrong collections, and it may not also compete that highly as The Prestige and The Illusionists. However, it has a fond effect on its own and with the great acting by the four main characters; it is something different to bring to the audience.

Critical Uptake
As it is just a recent film that came out in Australia and other countries, the reviews were still very much vague. The general comments about the film so far were negative. The critiques and film reviewers were not impressed by the plot and the lack thereof. Some were surprised by how this film can be any compatible with film of its kind such as The Prestige and The Illusionists. The target audience which were into the fiction genre were not amused of this film and for its director Gillian Armstrong. Especially for the fans of Gillian Armstrong, this was certainly not one of the best films she has take up upon comparing to the success of her previous films. At the time of its release and subsequently, this film did not do any much good for the Australian film industry except having Guy Pearce as the lead actor. The Australian market in my opinion could not relate to this film as the only hint of Australia was in the earlier part of the film where it showcased that Houdini was in Sydney, Australia doing his underwater stunt. As it lacks story and success with the viewers themselves, the Australianness of this film only relied on the director and the production crews. Death Defying Acts defied its acts in the film industry of Australia and elsewhere for its lack of power to attract the audience attention.

Subsequent and Prior Work of Crew and Cast
Gillian Armstrong
This is the 24th film directed by Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong is known mostly for her work in Little Women(1994), Last Days of Chez Nous(1992) and My Brilliant Career(1979)which she won two awards for and other films which have left a specific mark in the hearts of Australian cinema. However, her latest venture in Death Defying Acts did not have a great aesthetic that we would normally receive from her directions. It was a generally fine film and with that it was just a subtle way in adding up to her lists of films.
Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward
Both Grisoni and Ward are famous in writing stories that are untold and more specifically in the fiction/thriller arena. Prior to this film Grisoni had written for The lives of the Saints (2006) directed by Chris Cottam and directed/wrote Vanished! A Video Seance(1999). As for Brian Ward, he co-wrote The Interpreter (2005) which was directed by Sydney Pollack and acted by Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Both writers are very intrigued with thriller and mystery in their films and it is just a presentable combination for Death Defying Acts.
Haris Zambarloukos
Zambarloukos previous films include Sleuth(2007) and Venus(2006). Many of his work were on small budget films and also TV productions. In Death Defying Acts, his touch in bringing the 19so’s to life was amazing and the choices of locations made to depict the awkward lives of the poor and the rich were well made.
Cezary Skubiszewski
The music implemented in Death Defying Acts had pretty much help its audience to feel the sense of the time of the great Houdini. It brought the nostalgic effect of the 1920’s and how eerie the situation is at that time. It gives the audience a more wanting to know feeling and help the sequence of the film a lot. His previous work was in The Book of Revelation (2006)which was brilliantly composed. Other films he has worked on were Hating Alison Ashley(2005) and Two Hands(1999).
Catherine Zeta-Jones
An outstanding actress with a long list of credits to her name. Catherine Zeta-Jones has worked in films such as The Legend of Zorro (2005), Chicago (2002), and Traffic (2000) and so on. She won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 2003 for Chicago(2002).
Guy Pearce
Guy Pearce is an actor who can step into any character and portray them brilliantly. From a transvestite to a serious doctor, he has a variety of list in his career prior to Death Defying Acts. Some of them includes, Factory Girl (2006), The Time Machine (2002) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert(1994).
 Timothy Spall
His previous work were in Enchanted(2007), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and The Last Samurai (2004)

Saoirse Ronan
A new upcoming actress, Saoirse Ronan soared the screens in her outstanding performance in Atonement(2007) as Briony Tallis aged 13.

The Film and Australian Cinema
Death Defying Acts can be classified as a melodrama film and I would also consider it a Woman’s film. This is because as my research found out that even the writers were not thinking of Houdini at the first stage of writing this film. It is at a later date that Houdini’s character were put in to enhanced the plot and give it meaning to how the mother and daughter con artist would work. It was the quest where Benji and Mary had to take into realising that playing with fate and people’s lives are not a joking matter. This goes for Houdini as well, as he forgets his roots and pays too much attention on the public arena that he forgets the warmth of a touch and his own self. The melodrama as explained in “Ten types of Australian Film” by Garry Gillard was the fact that the plot coincides with the music it has on and it attracts the audience to response to the film in an emotional way.
As an Australian film context, Death Defying Acts did not portray any classification of an Australian film aside from its production company, director and crew. As mentioned before the only view of Australia in the film was in the opening scene when Houdini had a tour around the world and that he came to Sydney. Aside from this the film was more based in Edinburgh than anywhere else. In Gillian Armstrong interview with Moviehole, she mentioned that the Scottish had a similar sense of humour to Australian and that is why she chooses to make this film as it is easy for Australian to relate to it. Unfortunately I do not see any of that in this film and as I mentioned before sometimes it is very hard to understand what was going on in the film. Although it does not have any specific characteristic of Australian film, the fact that Guy Pearce was in it and that it consists of an Australian director, and production crew, it can very much slip into the Australian cinema scene.
This specific film does not really portray Australian cinema to the world. There are many other films in the past that can be accredited for this title and Death Defying Acts is not really cut for it. Therefore it does not have a big affect in changing the value of Australian film in the market horizons worldwide.

Gillard, G. (2007), “Melodrama” Ten Types of Australian Film.
You Tube:
The Internet Movie Database:
Moran, A. Vieth, E. (2006) Film in Australia: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press
Fraser, C.
Media Search: