A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 472 – The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist – June 15th, 2011

I’m feeling a great deal better tonight than I was last night and so we opted for something neither of us had seen. Something we would likely need to pay rather close attention to, given that the conceit involves stage magic and illusion and a mystery. And I did want to pay rather close attention to it, though it wasn’t as intricate as it appears to be on the surface. Which was good, because I’m feeling better but not that much better. Still, this was the perfect sort of “new” movie for me to watch this evening.

One thing I’d like to lay to rest right away is the comparison of this movie to The Prestige. Yes, they’re both period pieces focused around a stage magician performing impossible tricks. Yes, there is a romance involved. But they’re not telling the same story and they’re not telling their stories in quite the same way. The lead characters aren’t the same sort of person and neither are the villains. I can see why comparisons are made, but I really don’t think they’re entirely fair because the movies themselves are doing different things. And with different mechanisms. And I greatly enjoyed The Prestige, but I also greatly enjoyed this movie and I don’t want to spend this review poking one in favor of the other or vice versa. So I won’t be.

And besides, this movie deserves a solo review. It is a gorgeously filmed movie with an excellent cast. The plot is somewhat predictable, but given how it’s executed, that didn’t seem to matter to me. The twist here isn’t the point so much as how the main character pulls it off. This is the story of the son of a cabinetmaker and the daughter of an aristocrat and how they fell in love and were parted. And it is the story of how the two managed to come together again, despite obstacles in their ways. It is the story of determination and cleverness and ruthlessness, which I thought was far better done than I expected.

It helps that I love Edward Norton and feel that he’s got a Gene Wilder quality to him in that he’s normally composed and contained but with an intensity that could erupt at any moment. And he never does here. As Eisenheim the Illusionist he is thoroughly under control the entire time. Even when he appears to be broken, he is under control. He is the master in this movie. Eisenheim shows up in Vienna, playing his show to mostly full houses. He performs illusions and stage magic along with a bit of mysticism and talk about the soul and the nature of time and the like. It infuses his show with a dream-like quality that clearly helps build his audience. When he gains the notice of the Crown Prince, he also re-meets his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. But Sophie is set to be engaged to the Prince. And the Prince has a nasty reputation with women.

I hesitate to explain the specifics of what happens next because telling too much reveals the trick to the plot. But the trick isn’t really that tricky. So look away if you hate spoilers please. Because I’m going to go into a little bit of detail.

The thing here is that Eisenheim knows straight away that the Prince will never allow Sophie to go and certainly not with him. It’s obvious. And the movie begins in the middle of the story, with all of these things having happened already. Sophie is apparently dead and Eisenheim is apparently raising her spirit. The Prince is already out to get Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl is already stuck in the middle of it all. And what the movie tells you is how they all got to this point. It seems clear to me right away that Eisenheim is using some form of illusion trickery to present Sophie’s “ghost” to the audience. And it is equally clear to me that he’s out to break the Prince. It’s the emotional build-up that’s important here.

Now, while I love Edward Norton and I loved him as the determined and enigmatic Eisenheim, two other stand-outs are Rufus Sewell as the Prince and Paul Gaimatti as Inspector Uhl. The Prince is the obvious villain from the first moment he appears on screen and Sewell has that gaunt and empty-eyed look that lends itself so well to either desperation or cruelty (and I’ll likely mention this again when we do the Harry Potter movies but much as I love Gary Oldman, I still think Sewell could have played an amazing Sirius Black). Inspector Uhl, on the other hand, is a man caught between what he knows is right and what he is bound to by law. He has to obey the Prince, but he admires Eisenheim and knows full well that the Prince is a dangerous man. And Giamatti plays him excellently, going between the two and trying to find a way to both help Eisenheim and stay true to the Prince, which is impossible. In the end he has to realize that it isn’t the Prince he must be true to, but the Emperor. By the time the reveal has happened and Uhl has realized the scale of the sleight of hand Eisenheim has managed to pull off, well, he can’t help but admire the skill. The Prince, after all, was a nasty piece of work and plotting to overthrow his father. So the orchestration of his downfall is hardly something to regret. And Uhl is shown from the start to be a man who appreciates a good trick, even when he’s the one who’s been tricked. And that’s when you (and Uhl) realize just how in control Eisenheim was the whole time. Like any good magician, he was misdirecting onto something flashy while the trick was performed in plain sight.

What really completes the movie for me is the cinematography and soundtrack. It would have been a lovely movie anyhow, but there’s a sepia-tone quality to many of the shots that puts it right in the time period for me. There’s a blurring and darkening around the edges in some shots, as if the film itself is old. A bit of a conceit, but it suits the feel of the film so well. The lighting is soft and warm and the music is haunting, which only makes the mood later on, when Eisenheim is performing his spirit routine, that much eerier. It’s very recognizably Philip Glass, but not in a bad way. My one complaint here would be that the film clearly prefers the stylized look of the illusions to making it clear that they are illusions, leaving it unclear as to how Eisenheim was performing the tricks. But I like it better to believe that it was all tricks. Done with mirrors and smoke. Because it makes it that much more interesting to have it all be for real and for Eisenheim to be that talented. That skilled. That clever and determined. It makes him a fascinating character and an equally fascinating center for the movie.


June 15, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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