Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Illusionist

by Jackrabbit Slim

Stories about the history of magic, particularly in the pre-television era of entertainment, are like catnip to me. I've read several books about Houdini, and enjoy watching and reading Ricky Jay's work about magic history. I've also read several novels like Carter Beats the Devil, which is about a stage magician getting involved in political skullduggery. So I enjoyed very much The Illusionist, a tale of a magician and his lost love and an evil prince.

I have no interest in what passes for magic today, the spectacles that are on the Vegas strip or the attention-seeking David Blaine. Although Blaine is certainly an heir to Houdini, his stunts seem to be far more craven (maybe it's because he bangs a lot of models). But I'm a sucker for the old hocus pocus of yesteryear.

The appeal of magic, I think, is that those who like it want to believe it's real, and the best stories about it leave that up in the air. So this is with The Illusionist. Edward Norton is Eisenheim, the title character, who has a somewhat fairy-tale past. As a youth he was in love with a girl far above his station, and was forceably separated from her. Later, as a famous performer, he meets her again by chance, and she is a duchess engaged to the villainous prince. The prince, clearly a rationalist, watches Eisenheim's show and wants to know how he does it. After a command performance at the palace, Eisenheim shows up the prince, and he earns an enemy. Through all this the police inspector (Paul Giamatti), who is a toady to the prince, keeps an eye on the magician's comings and goings.

The film is directed lushly by Neil Burger, who is unknown to me. Set in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the cinematography is reminiscent of old photographs, slightly diffuse, and rich in earth tones. The music is by Philip Glass, and while it is certainly recognizable as his work, it is not overtly contemporary.

Edward Norton is excellent as the illusionist, but it is Giamatti who steals the show. He expresses the many layers of a man who knows he is the puppet of power but is inherently decent. Rufus Sewell does well with a part that is essentially a cliche, how he resists twirling his mustache I don't know. Only poor Jessica Biel sticks out. Certainly lovely to look at, her performance is flat and doesn't create much chemistry with Norton.

This film requires some effort from the audience, it is not for the passive movie-goer. It starts slowly, but slowly absorbs you if you are willing to take the ride. It even has an ending that suprised me.

Interestingly, before this film there was a trailer for another film about the magicians, The Prestige, which is directed by Christopher Nolan. It looks good as well, so for those interested in magic the season is ripe.


Blogger Alex Stroup said...

I found it thoroughly dull.

Yes, it is beautifully filmed and yes both Giamatti and Norton give great performances.

I'm not sure what surprised you at the end but there was nothing that surprised me in the whole movie and found the ending obvious from the earliest possible moment and if I could be said to feel surprise it was that it could be handled so clumsily.

9/03/2006 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Perhaps if I had disliked the film I would have seen the ending coming, but I was caught up in it so it took me surprise. Or maybe I'm just stupid. But I didn't find it dull at all.

9/04/2006 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Stroup said...

I don't want it to sound like I'm implying anybody is stupid. I've talked to a couple other people who saw it and they were surprised as well.

I liked the film just fine up to that point but I just knew immediately what had happened and nothing the film did after that caused any doubt to me that I was right.

9/04/2006 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I didn't think you were calling me stupid--I felt a little foolish that I was so easily duped by the ending. I should have seen it coming, but I attribute that to being caught up in the film's spell.

9/05/2006 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I really loved this film. I wasn't at all surprised by the ending but I was surprised (and delighted) by Giamatti's reaction to the big reveal. Craft-wise, The Illusionist hit every mark right on the bullseye. I thought the composition and performances were exquisite.

The lighting was worth the cost of the ticket alone. I am so tired of shiny, overlit period pieces. The Illusionist actually looks like it takes place in a time where everything was lit with flame or natural sunlight.

As much as I loved The Illusionist, I think it will all be swept aside when The Prestige comes along and blows us all away. Christopher Nolan can do no wrong.

9/05/2006 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

I'm excited to see this & The Prestige. I love magic (no 'k')

9/05/2006 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I didn't care for The Illusionist. It just didn't go anywhere or pay off in any way for me.

And I didn't get the magic. What's the point of doing a magic movie set in 1900 where all the tricks are done by CGI? It was kinda hard to accept, a perfect example of why Werner Herzog says that viewers have to be able to trust their eyes.

Plus, I was a little pissed that Norton, right after I called him the greatest of his generation, gave the most boring performance of his career.

9/12/2006 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I understand your point about the magic, but let me float an explanation.


The movie audience, as well as the audience in the film, have to wonder whether Eisenheim has supernatural powers. If all along we know he's simply a magician, then the plot point involving the ghosts wouldn't work. So his tricks early in the picture have to much more spectacular than could be achieved by real magicians (I don't think David Copperfield could make an orange tree grow).

9/12/2006 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Yeah, maybe, but it's still like being able to see the proverbial cards up the sleeve. I wasn't wondering if he really was a magician, I was thinking that the damn orange tree looked fake.

David Copperfield's tricks are really quite spectacular, by the way. If the movie were half as clever as he is, they would really have been on to something.

9/12/2006 04:44:00 PM  

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