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Magic that’s sure to surprise

Special to The Times

“Death Defying Acts” is far more diverting and well crafted than its promotion-free release campaign might suggest. Then again, for a film largely based on the notion that “nothing is what it seems,” such lowered expectations may actually work in its favor.

No matter, this “what if” tale involving famed escape artist Harry Houdini (a commanding Guy Pearce) and his infatuation with comely Scotswoman Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones, also fine), a sketchy clairvoyant to whom he offers $10,000 to summon his late mother’s last words, is a handsomely mounted, well-shot piece worth a look.

Director Gillian Armstrong, working from a darkly humorous, occasionally poetic script by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, conjures up 1926 Edinburgh, the site -- at least as drawn here -- of Houdini’s penultimate performances.

The movie is no sleight-of-hand wow-fest, however, focusing more on the push-pull attraction between Harry and the calculating Mary, who initially promises the maestro’s put-upon manager (Timothy Spall) that she and sidekick daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) will disappear as soon as Houdini forks over the cash.

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What the film loses in momentum as the romance takes over, it gains in sex appeal as its two attractive actors make their own kind of magic.

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“Death Defying Acts.” MPAA rated PG for some sensual thematic material, language, violent content and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Exclusively at Mann’s Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 777-3456.


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