A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Illusionist

June 15, 2011

The Illusionist

In the same way that Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same year, or Bug’s Life and Antz, this movie came out in the same year as The Prestige. It’s a phenomenon that puzzles me. Is it that rival studios rush to steal each other’s thunder by releasing similar movies or is it because marketing focus groups say that this is the year that a movie about a magician would be a success this year so they rush to produce that script they bought a while back. Or is it simple coincidence? I don’t rightly know the answer, but then again – I really enjoy a mystery.

So naturally I enjoy this movie. It’s a mystery with an illusionist at its center, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the plot is almost inconsequential. It’s predictable and telegraphed, and maybe even tired. In the eighteen hundreds there’s a low-born boy with a knack for slight of hand in Vienna who, in his youth, had an illicit love for a young high-born girl. The heartless world forces them apart and years later the boy has returned to Vienna and started a show as an illusionist whose trick mystify everybody from the common peasants to the local chief inspector. The crown prince of Vienna is a cold-hearted cynic who wants only to understand how the illusionist’s tricks are done and by odd coincidence his soon-to-be fiance is the long lost love of the illusionist. It’s a clash between the illusionist and the prince for the future of the countess, with the inspector stuck in the middle.

That doesn’t even begin to capture what the movie is about though. This movie, like the stage shows put on by Eisenheim the Illusionist, is a carefully crafted work of art. This is apparent from the very start of the film. The performances of Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, and Rufus Sewell are all deadly ernest. Norton is the enigmatic Eisenheim whose single minded devotion to the countess drives the entire movie. His passion and his emotion permeate the film. Just the power he can put into a simple glare is astonishing. Then there’s Giamatti as the hapless inspector. His character is the narrator and the audience stand-in, the easiest character to sympathise with. Like the audience he is skeptical, wants to understand how Eisenheim pulls off his tricks, and almost wants to believe that they’re real. Jessica Beil is the countess, and although her role is largely that of an object to be fought over by the illusionist and prince she also manages to have some backbone and attempts to take her destiny into her own hands, which is impressive. The engine behind the plot is Rufus Sewell as the cold prince who dispises trickery and wants the countess to further his own ambitions. He manages wonderfully to give his character, who is reprehensible in most ways, a tinge of humanity, especially near the end of the movie when he begins to show how frustrated he is with the gullibility of everybody around him.

In addition to the astonishing performances there’s the very look and feel of the movie. This is one of those films that shows just what the medium is capable of in terms of setting the mood and creating an atmosphere. Director Neil Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a very specific look to the film which captures the imagination and helps convey the other-worldly feel of the entire project. The movie is presented in a manner reminiscent of old nitrus based film stock from the earliest days of movies. It has a grainy look, with faded and out of focus edges (particularly during flashbacks or scenes representing the speculation of the inspector.) It uses old timey iris-out ends to scenes. It’s often lit practically with lamps and flames. In short it feels antiquated and aged. It’s as though it’s a restored film from bygone days simply uncovered by Burger.

The Philip Glass minimalist soundtrack also helps to set the mood. Indeed I’d say that much of the object of the whole film is to capture your imagination. Like the inspector you want to believe as you watch that some of the impossible things that Eisenheim accomplishes are real within the world of the movie.

My one complaint would be that the film makers cheat so much with the magic. There are some illusions shown that are very real slight of hand performed live in front of the camera, but there’s an awful lot of CGI special effects as well, which muddies the plot and confuses things. The power of a true illusionist is that he shows you something impossible that you somehow want to be true, but does it with clever trickery and misdirection. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how these things are done (although knowing the trick is often a let down because the answers are sometimes too simple and straight forward.) I felt cheated by this movie because the impossible things on stage were so clearly fake.

Still, I came away at the end awed by the craftsmanship displayed. It’s a gorgeous movie filled with powerful performances and with a truly unique look and feel to it. I’ll admit that it made me want to watch The Prestige again when I was done with it, but they’re very different films. It also made me want to see some true masters of the craft at work. Maybe we need to get Penn & Teller Get Killed now.

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

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