Monday, March 19, 2007

"The Illusionist" (2006) Neil Burger

There’s a scene just at the end of The Illusionist in which Chief Inspector Uhl, played by a likable Paul Giamatti, suddenly gains understanding of what has just happened in the previous two hours. Standing in the middle of a crowded train station, he breaks into a wide grin, confident that all has explained to him. The mystery is solved. He is enlightened. It's not unlike the end of “The Usual Suspects”, when the detective figures out who Keyser Soze is. Except for one minor detail. The audience are still left completely in the dark and instead of feeling enlightened, I just felt irritated.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the plot was too complicated, maybe I wasn’t paying attention as carefully as I should have been. But, leaving my possible stupidity out of the equation, the ending to The Illusionist is still an unsatisfactory pill to swallow. We have been completely duped by Edward Norton’s unblinking Eisenhiem, but as good as a magician as he is, he fails to address the fact that unless we have some way of riddling out the clues ourselves, half the fun is gone.

The Illusionist is a gothic fairytale set in early 20th century Vienna. Edward Norton plays Eisenhiem, a tall, slender, brooding man with a penchant for magic tricks. More then a penchant, I suppose – this guy enthralls audiences with his set pieces, conjuring up orange trees out of thin air, making handkerchiefs disappear and reappear and he also does a mean “Sword-in-the-Stone” trick that has the local royals fuming. In the voiceover narration, sparingly done by Chief Inspector Uhl (so sparingly I actually forgot there was a VO to begin with and when he suddenly started narrating again halfway through the movie I became momentarily confused) we are told Eisenheim’s backstory, in the years when he was just a young boy who fell in love with a girl of a higher social class. Inevitably Edward (as he was then known) and Sophie are torn apart by the adults in their lives, and a depressed Eisenheim falls into the world of magic and trickery, before leaving his village to travel the world and perfect his craft. So far, so predictable. Philip Glass’ thunderous score jumping in at impromptu moments should serve to accentuate the tension and danger, instead it merely draws attention to the fact that the acting in these flashback scenes is so woefully bad that we don’t really care if Eisenheim never sees his childhood love again. But hey, this is Hollywood, and so she eventually walks back into his life - and onto his stage. Back in present day (well, the present day of the film) an older Sophie (played, almost convincingly, by Jessica Biel) is volunteered by her latest flame, the Prince of Vienna (a ridiculously coiffured Rufus Sewell) to accompany Eisenheim onstage in one of his tricks. Thus, the pair are reunited and the old embers of love begin to reignate. Rufus Sewell is having none of it though, and demonstrates his anger by doing one of two expressions: “Glass-Eyed Monotone” or “Scary Glass-Eyed Fury”.

The ending and Rufus Sewell are two of the things I liked least about The Illusionist. There were also plenty of things I really enjoyed about it, mainly the cinematography. Or, as I put it to my sister upon leaving the cinema, “wow, pretty colours!”. Monochrome street scenes tinged with golden light, the flickering candle intensity of the magic shows, the almost technicolour glory of the train station, this is an extremely aesthethicly pleasing film. The quibbles I have with Philip Glass are fairly minor; he does tend to copy himself an awful lot and sometimes his scores are too overbearing (“Strings! Descending piano scales! Strings! Intensity! Pulsing strings!”), but that doesn’t change the fact I really dig his music. Even though I think he needs to borrow “Film Music For Dummies” from his local library and give it a quick thumb.

I wouldn’t discourage people from seeing this in the cinema. The presence of Edward Norton alone should be enough to entice many people to purchase a ticket and his performance is a treat. While his accent took me a little while to get used to, I quickly became accustumed to his mannered, strange way of speaking and totally believed in his character. It’s a fairly well-made, pretty production and even if the ending leaves you scratching your head/shaking it in disgust, it’s gaurunteed better than Norbit.


Damien Kelly said...

I'm glad to see you like it, as I intend to bring "someone" to it:P Also, Norbit is a piece of shit..athough you didn't necessarily quote just looks stupid full stop. Now. stop. I also noticed how you added my thingy to your URL thingy :$ I'll do the same. Lots of love XXX

Ann Marie said...

I'd heard that the film isn't that great, that the ending is somewhat predictable. I'd recommend The Prestige, very good film with a great twist.