The Illusionist

“Perhaps I will make you disappear? Bwa!”

The Illusionist probably should have been called “Men with Silly Accents”, but alas! It was not. Torn down in its prime as perhaps the funniest turn of the century magical intrigue ever made, The Illusionist instead has to settle for being an enjoyable confection that makes perfect sense while making none whatsoever.

Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) arrests Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton). Uhl briefs Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) on the Illusionist’s illustrious career and childhood romance of Countess von Teschen (Jessica Biel).

The Illusionist is an intriguing film, more interesting in its construction and its execution than anything so unimportant as its story. Many scenes are ringed by a dark halo and the whole exercise is like a tribute to early cinematic techniques and cliché. Several times I was reminded of Buñuel and Dali’s The Andalusian Dog, although The Illusionist doesn’t set out to deliberately mess with your mind.

With its mechanical special effects and its Academy Award nominated cinematography, the experience is somewhat akin to a waking dream … the ideas expressed within floating away on a tide of candy coloured clouds. This is compounded by one of those mystery endings where suddenly everything becomes clear to the detective in charge and the unspoken although clearly intended final line is “I take my hat off to you, sir!”
I can only hope that what we saw at the ending is the wild imaginings of a man who likes to put things together, because what we’ve got is ridiculously Blade Runner original cut idyllic.

This is an entertaining piece of work, and that’s the bottom line, but there was no point I could really take it seriously. Despite the fact that Norton puts in an excellent performance of longing, that Giamatti is great at being intrigued, that Biel could be considered a legitimate actress and that Sewell is good at blustering, there’s that undercurrent of unreality coursing through the veins of the entire film that can’t quite reconcile itself with the potential seriousness of the story going on.

You could cite The Illusionist as an example of a fake study of late 19th century fake Vienna and its fake politics and fake persecution of (real) illusionists, but none of it seems real enough to do so. It’s a movie that explains all of its tricks and entertains with them but feels hollow as a result.
It’s engaging and I certainly liked it, but The Illusionist‘s appeal is illusory, and definitely not in the normal mould of cinematic entertainment. It’s almost worth seeing for its difference alone, but it has to settle for being not great despite all of that.

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