Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Illusionist, The (2006)

You don't have to ponder and obsess over how the magic tricks are done. They're not the focus of this film.

To begin this review, let’s look at The Prestige, which this film will inevitably draw comparisons to. I frankly didn’t quite like the first film. Perhaps that was due to the liberal amounts of spoonfeeding that Christopher Nolan whacks onto his audience, as well as the incredibly generous amount of foreshadowing that served to give away every plot twist way before it happened. And yet here’s another movie about a magician, his showstopping act, and a rival determined to figure out how he does it. There’s even a serious battle of wits between the magician and his rival, as well as an all-out attempt to ruin each other. So how on earth would The Illusionist be a better film that The Prestige?

There’s just one magician, not two. Edward Norton plays The Illusionist of the title. That’s Eisenheim the Illusionist for you, but for Duchess Sophie, he’s just a plain old childhood friend, the son of a cabinetmaker, the young teen she almost ran away with. Now that she’s engaged to be married to the liberal reformer Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who will someday inherit the Austrian Empire from his arch-conservative fuddy duddy daddy Franz Josef I, but would much prefer to snatch the crown for himself first, it’s understandable that there’s plenty of tension between the illusionist, the duchess, and the crown prince.

Rivalry adds to intrigue, not detracts from it. Together with his trusted crony the chief of police Uhl (Paul Giametti), the crown prince, a man of science, is especially fixated on trying to figure out how Eisenheim creates his illusions and magic tricks, and constantly looks for chances to humiliate the other. Despite this, the movie doesn’t demystify the world of magic tricks (unlike The Prestige). The key point in this movie is the important magic tricks are never revealed or explained – there are only plausible conjectures and educated guesses, and unlike The Prestige, they aren’t even the central focus of the movie. What then, is the central focus? Well, the Duchess Sophie still has feelings for Eisenheim, but the Crown Prince is a figure who will not tolerate any betrayals, and is rumoured to resort to ruthless measures if pushed to it...

A real battle of wits that goes beyond "How does he do it?" to "What will he do next?" Part of the charm of The Illusionist is how the fight between Eisenheim and Leopold intensifies when the body of Sophie is found at a river, possibly a victim of a murder. It is from then on that the prickly rivalry between Eisenheim, Leopold, and Uhl become more deadly, with the Crown Prince and the trying to set up Eisenheim for a fall, while the grieving Eisenheim tries to pin the Crown Prince down at the same time. Both the nature and tools of their machinations are unpredictable, and has more plots and counterplots, lunges and feints than you’d normally expect or predict. In fact, the handling of the rivalry between Eisenheim and Leopold, and their mutual attempts to unmask each other, is written with an intricacy and subtlety that approaches the art of Neil Gaiman, and comparable to the battle of wits that both Death Note movies played so well.

Of course, this unconventionally written film benefits from excellent acting from Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giametti – all actors who haven’t hesitated to play the odd non-commercial, indie movie, and consistently choose parts that are more ambiguous and eccentric than characters from typical Hollywood scripts. All 3 principal actors impart this ambiguity to great effect in The Illusionist, giving a sense that the characters are involved in a far larger and deeper game than what we’re seeing, that everyone might just be playing at cross purposes to each other. As the movie ends, I too was stunned, like Inspector Uhl, at the unmasking of the great game that has just been played. It’s a great feeling, compared to the deflationary aftertaste I had from the final reveal of The Prestige.

First published at incinemas on 18 January 2007

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