The Illusionist (2006)

Usually when Hollywood churns out similar movies back to back, there’s a lot of confusion. The second film typically suffers, even though it might be the better one. Or, in some rare cases, the second one does much better because the first one makes just enough people interested in the subject matter, and “builds up” an audience. In vast majority of the cases, both films get very different reaction from audiences and critics. This past summer, two movies dealing with magic have entertained us – The Illusionist and The Prestige (just wait until we post our belated Pan’s Labyrinth review). Surprisingly, both were embraced by the critics, and, what’s even more unusual, despite being rather philosophical in nature (as opposed to typical summer fx-travaganza) they did solid business. We saw both, but with Toronto Film Fest, and other events, completely forgot about these fine films. The Illusionist is coming out on DVD – why not review it now, and quickly follow by The Prestige – after all, both films are worthy of your time. In spite of their similarities.

We started this review a few times, but could not escape constant comparisons with The Prestige, so please bear with us – we’ll post two reviews, but admittedly, they will be very similar (maybe we’ll just cut and paste them, and just change the titles).

Where to start? A typical movie brings in a certain make-belief into your life. You abandon common sense, forget an occasional law of physics, and enter the world where the elements can be ignored (or emphasized) for dramatic effect. You have to accept a few abnormal things when you watch a movie – whether it’s science fiction or a romantic comedy. But just how much do you have to abandon when you watch a movie about magic, about illusions? You can’t really answer that (and review such a film) without over-analyzing it. Especially a film as solid and well-presented as The Illusionist. Is the narrator going to pull the rug in the end? Is there a third-person who’s tricking you? Is it just the camera work and editing style? You know there’s a catch, or a trick, but you have to give in – like the audience in a circus, and find out the hard way. But before you even start thinking of various red herrings, you’re already in a world of turn-of-century Vienna, where a famous magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is doing card tricks for the masses, and is bored with his easy fame (and subsequent easy money). He’s skillful, and as his audience becomes more select (invitations to higher circles, approaching royalty), his acts become more daring.

He begins to question authority, undermine the royalty. He begins to demand, and for an entertainer, that’s a bit out of line. Especially, if you demand from a crown prince of Hungary (Rufus Sewell). A little intrigue ensues, the prince sets his loyal inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to watch Eisenheim’s performances, looking for subversive undertones, and political statements (of which there are plenty, if you’re looking for them). And so the game begins. Is this really about class? Could there be a woman involved (that’s a rhetorical question)? Is the crown prince a jealous evil archetype who’s in for a ride?

No matter what the answers are, during the Illusionist, I kept enjoying how the movie revealed them to me. Sure, I knew some of the twists, and wasn’t amazed by many of Eisenheim’s tricks, but boy, what a heavy subplot. The illusionist (the performer) tried to educate the great unwashed and encourage them to question authority. Meanwhile, the illusionist (the man) is hopelessly in love with a woman from another class – a big no-no, and tries anything possible to earn that love, to make it acceptable, legitimate. Finally, the Illusionist (the movie) draws so many parallels with today’s press coverage, public relations, oppression of the uneducated, mass entertainment – it’s nearly impossible to sit back and watch for those final few tricks – you fall into them, along with the rest of the audience.

It’s fascinating, the mastery of magic. To make an engaging, interesting movie about it is quite a task. But it’s a bigger accomplishment to dissect the art, to analyze it, and then add a great, accessible plot, a gorgeous damsel in distress, a costume drama, and show off a few tricks along the way. Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti keep having these stunning staring contests, and you just know these two are never meant to be adversaries – they just happen to have opposing masters (read: commerce vs. art). The film has many silences, and uses them with great effect. Sometimes, you just have to watch – the ears will only deceive you.

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