Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Illusionist (2006)

“Everything you have seen here has been an illusion.”

This is the first time I’ve seen this film, but I well remember the awkwardness of its coming out at much the same time as The Prestige, which slightly overshadowed it and was largely seen as the better of the two films about Victorian magicians with massive twists. That’s a pity. The Illusionist, considered on its own merits, is a fine film.

The film is set in a semi-historical Vienna of 1900, in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and has an interesting political subtext. The villain, Crown Prince Leopold, is fictional (although the emperor is clearly Franz Josef) and at the head of a disturbingly hierarchical class system with the Habsburg monarchy at its apex. The emperor is far more than a figurehead, and the snobbery of the system is seen in various ways- Eisenheim’s romance with the Duchess Von Teschen is star-crossed and forbidden, while Chief Inspector Uhl is limited in his career paths through being far too common to advance much further, especially given the further handicap of his integrity; Paul Giamatti is outstanding.

And yet the Habsburgs are the glue that holds this multi-ethnic empire together, protecting it from the dangers of nationalism and ethnic conflict which would plague this area throughout the Twentieth Century, from the Holocaust to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia. The empire is archaic and moribund, but the future without the Habsburgs is ominous. Another slight theme is the association of the Crown Prince with rationalism and empiricism and Eisenheim with Madame Blavatsky style spiritualism. This is a little uncomfortable for the sceptics among us, but heigh-ho.

The film centres mainly around an audacious, brilliant and twisty-turny plot with a still, dignified, mysterious hero in Eisenheim (Edward Norton gives an undemonstrative performance but this seems appropriate), a truly unpleasant villain in the Crown Prince (a suitably slimy Rufus Sewell). I shall try to avoid spoilers, but the plotting is glorious and the ending truly satisfying.

The direction, from Neil Burger, is also impressive. I admire the colours in particular, with the sepia element to the opening titles and the pre-Raphaelite look to the flashbacks contrasting with the realism of the “present”. It’s a mystery why the largely American cast should feel the need to adopt vaguely British accents for characters who would have been speaking German, a rather odd Hollywood habit, but otherwise I can find little to pick at. The score, from none other than Philip Glass himself, is also superb.

As far as I can recall this isn’t quite up there with The Prestige. But it deserves better than to be unfavourably compared to a slightly better film. The Illusionist is a superb film in its own right.

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