The Illusionist (2006)

After a long hiatus from film-watching, I came back and finished watching this. Of course, it came out at the same time as The Prestige and will likely be forever entwined in the public conscious with that other film. Maybe not “forever,” I guess, but certainly for a long time. I’ve seen The Prestige, saw it in theatres, in fact, and heard long ago that the films really oughtn’t be compared. That’s not going to stop me, of course, but I am going to note the reasons I don’t disagree with the idea that they aren’t to be compared, per se (even as I’m doing it). I took interest in the film mostly for Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti, though I’d heard mostly disappointing or middling reviews of the film.

A young Edward, also known as Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) finds himself friendly with young Sophie, also known as Duchess von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson) despite their class differences, and even find themselves drawn instinctively to love with one another. It’s not to be, though, and the Duchess is taken away from him before they can escape together. Eisenheim disappears, too, and learns more fully the arts of illusion, returning to Vienna later to practice this art on stage (and now played by Norton). At a show, his volunteer is none other than Duchess von Teschen (now played by Jessica Biel), though she is volunteered rather than choosing the role herself, by her future husband, the Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). The two recognize each other, and Eisenheim begins to trade wits, pride and shame with Leopold, who is arrogant and cold in his actions, holding pride over all else. Police Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Giamatti) is set on Eisenheim’s trail to disgrace him as fraud, only for everyone’s plans to be tripped up by an unexpected accident, leading Eisenheim to act even more outwardly aggressive toward Leopold, who attempts to hold his grown out of his stubborn belief in his own worth.

The similarities between this film and The Prestige are passing and simplistic: both deal in magic and illusion, are period films and work on competition between two male leads. There are other connections to be drawn, certainly, but in general they are entirely dissimilar films. The Prestige–an irony considering its title–is less interested in spectacle and more interested in morality and philosophy, character motivation and depth, setting aside story as the vehicle to examine these things. The Illusionist is all about spectacle; it is entertainment in its entirety, a story told to tell a story, with devices and bells and whistles to give it character and identity. This isn’t to say it’s utterly shallow or without any thought behind it, but rather that it is not interested in wrapping itself too tightly in such ideas. There is flirtation with the idea of enlightenment and retaliation against this rather pragmatic approach to life and reality, and on the absurdity of class division, but it primarily centers on the idea of illusion or magic (and which Eisenheim practices), and on the story of the love he and Sophie share. It’s almost a fairy tale in this respect, a simple love story wrapped behind a simple story spiced with the fantastic.

There’s a strangeness to the entire film, being as the real stumbling block of the film is the script. It’s not a bad story, nor is the dialogue stilted in terms of word choices, but it is rather bare. Norton and Giamatti actually come off a bit lost with this, trying to bring character to roles that are not written up enough to contain much. Both have strong and clear presence physically, but suffer the De Niro-Period-Effect (which I first discovered watching The Mission, and consists of a feeling of inherent anachronism when some actors perform in period pieces) to a degree whenever they open their mouths. Both maintain their (admittedly light) accents rather solidly, but seem to be a bit too focused on keeping their words short and clipped to match the feeling of the language they are mimicking by accent. Sewell and Biel actually do best in their roles, Sewell simmering and feeling just shy of explosion as the conceited and proud Prince, sure of his own worth and the lack of worth of others. Biel shows a defiance and independence that is matched by her devotion and love for Eisenheim–nothing terribly fancy or complex, but well performed (in spite of my previous impression of Biel, which was probably most coloured by Marcus Nispel’s terrible remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre–leading me to write her off as a hollow pretty face).

What makes the film, though, is the experience of it. DP Dick Pope was Oscar-nominated and deserved it, with a very rich, thick feeling of colour throughout the film, often very dark but lit well enough to hold the lines of all the important details, and with little nudges toward elder silent film via iris lens transitions and the occasional circular frame that mimics the darkened corners of the inferior exposure process used in early film, as well as even flickering for the scenes of the young lovers. There’s a fantastic mix of stage, screen and painting in many scenes, in the sense that the world feels constructed and planned like a stage show, artfully balanced like a painting and near-real like film. It’s quite beautiful, and often just shy of distractingly so. Behind this we of course have the sound of a Philip Glass score, which caught my ear before I even saw his name, and began waiting to see who it was–and was reminded that I, in fact, did actually know this but had forgotten. It matters not, though, because Glass’ music is fantastic as usual, and that’s more relevant than the fact that it was him who wrote it. It bears that signature repetition of Glass’ work, but with that lovely building of permutation that seems almost mathematical and yet perfectly organic–perhaps like the rigid but natural formation of crystal (or maybe the prisms on the cover of his Glassworks are just stuck in my head).

Director Neil Burger has very astutely assembled the parts to make a beautiful film, and one that I didn’t see as focusing on plot–though this is harped on most by critics–because it seems consciously hollow of this based on its focus on the visual and auditory experience, which is only enhanced by the feeling that Norton and Giamatti’s best work in the film is all visual. Don’t watch hoping for or expecting a transcendently original plot, because it isn’t about that. Keep that in mind and you ought to enjoy yourself thoroughly.

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