Sunday, January 14, 2007

THE ILLUSIONIST - more seditious than romantic

THE PRESTIGE is a dark, psychological thriller of haunting emotional depth and stunning narrative complexity. THE ILLUSIONIST is interesting for different reasons.

Set in pre-WW1 Vienna, THE ILLUSIONIST is a story about class conflict and the legitimacy of political authority. I am rather surprised to be writing that sentence. All the PR hype suggested that it would be a love story between
Edward Norton's lower class magician, Eisenheim, and Jessica Biel's upper class Duchess Sophie. This sets us up for a love against all odds story in which the audience is rooting for the starry couple to get together.

But the movie is far more and far less than that. I was surprised at what little time was devoted to the love story. There is a touching prologue that shows a young Eisenheim (played by Prosper from
THE THIEF LORD) and Sophie falling in love as pre-teens. Fast forward twenty years, and Eisenheim returns as a celebrated magician and is reunited with Sophie, who is now engaged to the Crown Prince of Austria. They immediately rekindle their love and Sophie falls into bed with Eisenheim in a move that strikes against the mores of the time. But then, tragedy strikes and the love story gives way to a sort of Agatha Christie-style whodunnit and howdunnit, with Paul Giamatti's Chief Inspector Uhl trying to ferret out a murderer, while kowtowing to the establishment.

As an audience member, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, but not in a satisfying manner. Having bought into a love story, the movie then shifted away, and by the time it shifted back I realised that actually I hadn't been watching a love story at all but a deeply troubling almost political film. Because THE ILLUSIONIST is a remarkably seditious film. Overtly, Eisenheim undermines the authority of the Crown Prince
(Rufus Sewell), and while conceding that it is not up to *him* to topple the monarchy he is clearly aware of the way in which his illusions are whipping up dissent in Vienna. Implicitly, the movie is asking us to sympathise with a character that is responsible for the victimisation of a person who, while far from virtuous, is after all, unworthy of his fate. As a result, the final scene, in which a conventional Hollywood audience would find catharsis and a lovely warm feeling, actually sits rather uncomfortably with me. If this is what the director intended, then it is a bold and daring move, albeit one that pulls the emotional rug out from under the audience. If it was unintended then....

Sedition aside, what is there to like about this movie? In terms of production and costume design, the movie is absolutely ravishing. The use of locations in Prague, and the attention to detail of the costumes pays off. The cinematography is beautiful - a classic example is the way in which the love scene between Sophie and Eisenheim is filmed to be almost dream-like with a constantly shifting (and discreet) focus. The score by Philip Glass is evocative and despite the fact that the accents bear no resemblance to any of my Austrian friends (of which there are many), the consistent upper class English with a hint of Central Europe does succeed in creating a slightly foreign, exotic feel. And while Jessica Biel is anonymous, Giamatti, Sewell and Norton give strong performances.

Overall then, THE ILLUSIONIST is a handsome film, featuring strong performances and a highly seditious and thus challenging narrative arc. But audiences looking for an emotionally engaging love story or a mesmerising movie about magic should look elsewhere.

THE ILLUSIONIST is already on release the USA, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, Argentina, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Finland, Israel, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. It opens in France on January 17th 2006, in Singapore on Jan 18th, and in Belgium on January 24th. It opens in the UK on February 16th. THE ILLUSIONIST is also available on Region 1 DVD in the US, which was kindly sent to us here at Movie Reviews for Greedy Capitalist Bastards. Amateur magicians can enter a competition to win a trip to LA here until Jan 31st.

1 comment:

  1. I found this movie to be completely satisfying and engaging. Beautifully shot, wonderfully performed, and with a brilliant script to boot; I have to say that this was my favorite movie of 2006.