Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) are a right pair of rogues, working the streets with their tried and tested scams before then working the audience at the local theatre where having snooped on people during the day make out they have psychic abilities. When the grieving illusionist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) comes to Scotland to perform feeling guilt over his mother's recent death, he offers $10,000 to anyone who can make contact with her. With one psychic after another being exposed as frauds Harry is captivated and convinced that Mary and Benji are the real thing when they convince him of their abilities.
When a movie features Harry Houdini you might feel short changed when in truth the movie is not really about him. That is sort of the case when it comes to "Death Defying Acts" as whilst entertaining the entertainment comes more from the set up of the World's greatest illusionist and renowned exposer of frauds being charmed by this street smart woman and her daughter who not only captivate is heart but convince him of their psychic powers. It means that those who watch wanting some Harry Houdini magic and daring escapes will find themselves still left wanting once "Death Defying Acts" ends.
But as I said "Death Defying Acts" is entertaining and the whole story of the street savvy Mary getting one over on Houdini whilst being romanced by him is a lot of fun. The scenes early on which show us how Mary uses her daughter Benji to not only scout out information on her victims but also do a bit of pick pocketing are enjoyable because they are light, comical and full of character. And the scenes of Houdini wowing crowds have a fake look, that aspect of almost looking drawn with a sepia tinge which whilst not everyone's cup of tea actually makes it stand out visually. But of course you have the romance, the scheming, the sneaking around and whilst it comes up short on depth it is heavy with charm and character as well as an engaging twist.
That is basically what "Death Defying Acts" has, it has charm and character. As such it becomes a movie of performances and so whilst Guy Pearce doesn't deliver the most authentic of performances and the movie doesn't call on him to deliver the illusions of Houdini he delivers a character full of charisma who could charm anyone. At the same time Catherine Zeta-Jones is beguiling with her street smarts and mischievous glint. It is good casting as Zeta-Jones and Pearce work well together and bring spark to their characters. But both Pearce and Zeta-Jones frequently find themselves outshone by the young Saoirse Ronan whose natural delivery of a young child who is mesmerised by the great Houdini but does things such as rub her nose across the window as she peers through it which makes it so right and makes you smile.
What this all boils down to is that "Death Defying Acts" is entertaining but more because of the performances of all the cast rather than because of it being a movie which features the character of Harry Houdini.