Saturday, March 03, 2007

Review - The Illusionist

As an act of cinematic trickery, The Illusionist is a nifty piece of work. This latest entry in the suddenly popular turn-of-the-century magicians genre is a film which casts a spell over the viewer; a film which lulls us into the story, even while we remain aware of its numerous flaws. Director Neil Burger pulls off this feat by employing charismatic actors, some gorgeous cinematography, and a lyrical musical score; all aspects which deceive the viewer into thinking there’s more to this old-fashioned drama than meets the eye - what a shame Burger almost blows the whole show right at the end, revealing the basic mechanics behind his act at the worst possible moment.

So The Illusionist isn’t a perfect film by any means, but at least it’s a lot more fun than The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s magician movie which displayed a distinct lack of magic as it followed the rivalry between two obsessively driven characters. There’s a touch more romance about The Illusionist, and it coveys a beguiling sense of wonder at the magician’s art. In this case, the magician is Eisenheim (Edward Norton) an extraordinarily gifted and enigmatic individual whose spectacular shows are wowing Austrian crowds in the early part of the 20th century. He makes doves appear out of nowhere, he causes an orange tree to grow on stage, and he has a fantastic trick involving a red cape and a mirror, but for this last one he needs a volunteer.

It just so happens that the volunteer emerging from the audience on one particular night is Sophie (Jessica Biel), someone who Eisenheim loved as a child and who was cruelly snatched away from him by her aristocratic family. Now, Sophie is due to marry the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and she finds herself torn between the mysterious artist - who she has secretly pined for since their childhood romance was cut short - and the cold, ruthless heir who is tired of waiting for his time on the throne and is planning to stage a coup against his father. Not a tough decision, you might think; and when Leopold gets an inkling of Sophie’s illicit relationship with Eisenheim he orders local police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to keep a close eye on him, but Eisenheim’s most spectacular tricks are yet to come.

This is a dangerously thin narrative on which to hang a 110-minute movie, and the fact that Steven Millhauser’s screenplay has been adapted from a short story hardly comes as a surprise. The characters are a little on the shallow side, and it’s left to the actors to fill out their parts, something they do with some skill. Eisenheim is an unlikely role for Norton, but it turns out to be one perfectly suited to his intelligent and somewhat inscrutable screen presence. The actor plays the inscrutable protagonist in an understated fashion, his watchful eyes and carefully-chosen words always suggesting a keen intelligence and some unknown motives lurking behind his cool exterior. He’s more than matched by Giamatti, who has fun with his part as the conflicted police officer. Uhl is conflicted because he respects and perhaps even likes Eisenheim, but he must follow the orders of Leopold, a man for whom such respect and likeability are in short supply. Giamatti brings a lot of charm to the movie, and the interplay between Uhl and Eisenheim is where the film works best.

The love story, though, doesn’t really work as it should do. Biel is an appealing, attractive presence - and perhaps the only person in the film not sporting some impressive facial hair - but she can’t do a great deal with the stock ‘romantic interest’ part she has been saddled with. The romantic angle of The Illusionist feels pretty rote and clich├ęd, and the third point in the central love triangle - Sewell’s Leopold - never grows into anything more than a cold and predictable villain.

But despite the laborious nature of these scenes, The Illusionist always manages to hold the attention, and it’s always pleasing on the eye. Dick Pope’s photography is absolutely spellbinding: he paints the film with a sepia-toned brush, the slight haziness and flickering nature of his camerawork recalling early silent pictures, and The Illusionist always maintains a strangely beguiling quality because of its lovingly crafted atmosphere. The film also delights in the act of magic itself, with some lovely low-key special effects utilised to bring Eisenheim’s illusions to the screen. These tricks are adventurous, stretching credibility without being entirely outside the realms of possibility, but when Eisenheim’s act starts to include apparent necromancy in the film’s second half - bringing ghosts to life on the stage, and causing them to walk amidst the public - the picture starts to wobble badly.
The Illusionist eventually builds to a twist ending which is a cinematic crime on two fronts. First of all, it’s a painfully obvious piece of rug-pulling which most viewers will have seen coming a long time before, and most will have been hoping in vain for something more original; and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also an ending which is explained to the viewer in a bewildering Usual Suspects-style avalanche of flashbacks, the effect of which is confusion as much as enlightenment. This an extraordinarily clumsy manner in which to end such a graceful piece of filmmaking, and it’s almost as if the filmmakers got cold feet at the thought of hiding the workings of their plot, instead deciding at a late script meeting to throw the audience a bone.
The Illusionist disappoints then, after a pretty strong opening hour, but it remains an enjoyable picture which is different enough from the norm to merit a recommendation. Fans of The Prestige may argue that Christopher Nolan’s film is more strongly scripted and more ambitious - and they’d probably be right in many ways - but I preferred The Illusionist because it feels like a film which possesses a greater sense of wit and invention, and seems to contain a little of that rare magical quality which was notable by its absence in The Prestige. Neil Burger certainly knows how to hold an audience’s attention, he knows how to dazzle them with some smart conjuring or misdirection, but he doesn’t quite know how to end his act; and The Illusionist would have been a much stronger film if it had resisted the urge to spill everything it had concealed up its sleeves just before the curtain fell. As any good magician should know, a trick never feels quite as special when the sense of mystery has been spoiled.