When in Edinburgh during his 1926 world tour, the escape artist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers a $10,000 to the person who can successfully contact his late mother. Marie Magarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who performs in a psychic act with her daughter (Saoirse Ronan), take up the challenge and in so doing attracts the affections of Houdini.

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It’s in trying to reconcile a real occult obsessive with a romantic fictionalisation that the film ends up at odds with itself.

It’s in Sydney Harbour that Death Defying Acts begins with Harry Houdini escaping from an underwater lock box against the backdrop of a Sydney Harbour Bridge still under construction.

It’s a beaut image, but also cinematic sleight of hand - Houdini actually toured Australia in 1910, long before work started on the bridge, and he never took a dip in the harbour.

Death Defying Acts isn’t set in Australia any more than it’s based on history. It uses Houdini’s obsession with spiritualism as a jumping off point for a fictional romance set in Scotland.

The film has stage medium Mary McGregor and her sidekick daughter Benji excited that Houdini is touring their city of Edinburgh. The magician has offered $10,000 to anyone who can contact his beloved mother from beyond the grave.

Using their con artist skills, our impoverished duo are determined to take his cash. But when Harry meets Mary, he’s fascinated by her – and she him.

Director Gillian Armstrong’s movie is gorgeously made and works as an agreeable flight of fancy that builds a strong sense of mystery.

Catherine Zeta Jones is wonderful as Mary – she seems to get more accomplished with every role. She’s matched by newcomer Saorise Ronan, the 13-year-old star in the making who was so good in Atonement and will next be seen in The Lovely Bones.

Timothy Spall has great sport with Houdini’s protective manager but Guy Pearce, while physically perfect for the demanding role, doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in Houdini’s skin.

The script was initially written around Mary and Benji - Houdini was added later in the process and it’s here that the seams show. Houdini was fiercely sceptical about spiritualists - it’s doubtful he would’ve fallen for a fakir, even one as charming as Zeta Jones.

It’s in trying to reconcile a real occult obsessive with a romantic fictionalisation that the film ends up at odds with itself.

Even though it unravels when it should be coming together, Death Defying Acts rates three stars as a beautifully made, romantic mystery.