The Illusionist [2006]

I went to see The Prestige yesterday, and it blew me away. Probably the best movie-going experience since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang about this time last year. I’m tempted to see it again, but I think it may be a while: too harrowing, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

Anyway, it’s a well-known occurance that when a major hollywood movie is being produced, a second will be produced which mimics it in some crucial way. For Armageddon we had Deep Impact, for example. Nick Cole was compiling a list for his own amusement on NYE, so you can check in with him for more examples.

The “sister” of The Prestige is called The Illusionist, and if it’s cast is slightly less epic, it is nevertheless headed by Ed Norton, who has a very solid record for only being involved in Good Movies ™; this being more than can, strictly, be said for either Christian Bale or Hugh Jackman. In fact, Hugh’s becoming decidedly wobbly, with X3, Van Helsing and Scoop all being especially inadequate in recent times.

Typically when Hollywood does this, we get one “fun” and one “serious” movie, as producers and screen writers try to differentiate their movies. It must be akin to some form of gambling, as each tries to decide which approach will be best for a set topic. My impression is that the basic fault in The Illusionist comes from trying to be a more serious and high-powered version of The Prestige, but instead becoming quite hard to take seriously.

I think from here a point-by-point comparison would only serve to outline what I liked about The Prestige, so let me talk about The Illusionist on its own merits.

I have talked in several recent posts about the neo-classical obsession with the “Three Unities”, and given my neo-classical tendencies it should be no surprise when I tell you that one of the great faults of the Illusionist was that it tried to do too much, straying from my beloved “Unity of Action”. At least, that’s what I thought at first. You see, the film begins with a classic flashback-narration “the hero as a young man”. We see the young Eisenheim (Ed Norton) and his introduction to magic, and then a very abbreviated tour through the love affair which is the origin of most of the film’s action. The second part is then concerned with a battle of wills between Eisenheim and the Crown Prince Leopold over the heart of said woman. Part 3 shows the battle transformed to a quest for revenge, before we have the final victory, obvious and inevitable, of our hero.

So now I’d like to talk a little bit about detective fiction. You see, writing a detective novel is a lot like performing magic. Devising a victim, a motive and a circumstance are easy. The writer then disguises this as best as they are able in the structure of the book, while drip-feeding all the puzzle pieces to the reader so that at the end they cannot be accused of chicanery or the arbitrary solution. At the end, the events that took place must all make sense for the mystery to be satisfactory.

The large part therefore of the crime-writer’s art is in building credibility: to make the audience believe that the half-truth you tell them is the whole truth that they want to know. The similarity between this and magic should now be blindingly obvious. The risk when you combine the two is that you are now peddling quarter-truths as the whole thing, which is successively harder. The writers however, decided that they would make their lives even more exciting by having a basic plot that is improbable at best.

And in that enterprise, rather than forming a seemingly tangled web which unwinds itself with the firm masterful tug of an artist, we get a genuine gordian knot; which, at the conclusion of the movie the authors simply cut, rather than try to untie.

They cut the knot in two ways. The first mistake was in opening in media res and then launching into nearly 80 minutes of exposition to lead back to the “start” of the movie. This includes the rather hackneyed magic and love origin stories done in a rather careless way, but worse, the “prologue” caries on past the flash-back and into the beginning of the story. By the time you get back to the shock-introduction, you’ve probably started to forget most of the salient points. Perhaps a masterful script-doctor might have rescued it, but as it was I gained no empathy for the characters from this pair of lengthy episodes. Its great failure was that it did not sell the love-story to us, it just nodded at it and assumed we would recognise the form.

Then, obviously, the story continues into an un-foreshadowed future, in which the revenge-plot is played out. Their second mistake was to not offer any credible explanation for the magic that Eisenheim does. We are supposed to get the idea that it is genuine magic, but because the magic is merely a mechanism in the revenge-plot, we are not awed by the revelation, simply annoyed at its expedience.

My summary of the problems with the movie therefore moves any mention of Unity and is simply this: the movie tries to stage a sequence of grand objectives and methods, without first building a foundation of interest or credibility in the audience.

The really tragic thing is that I think this film was definitely rescuable. I would delete the entire flash-back structure, since it clearly does not build the characters in the intended way. Its purpose is to do two things:
1. Explain how Eisenheim developed his skills. It fails to do this because it retains the myth-like vagueness which the audience could well assume without such paltry aids; moreover after his initial taste of magic is merely says “oh, and he learned more cool stuff elsewhere.”
2. Demonstrate the deep and abiding love between Eisenheim and Sophie. If fails to do this by failing to explain his 12 year absence from her company. An abiding and obsessive love that you can forget all about until Act II?

I have no logistical problem with his magic being real, but if so I think it should have been acknowledged and dismissed early in the movie as not being relevant to the battle of wills*. Alternately, it could have been explored in greater depth. As it stands, it comes across as laziness on the part of the writers.

Instead of the “childhood lovers” angle, I think merely the enticement of the exotic Eisenheim contrasted with the bombastic and abusive Crown Prince would sufficiently have explained the love story, and left the whole thing feeling more natural.

There are a few highlights, almost all relating to the wonderful Paul Giamanti, who does his best with a fairly week “corrupt cop turns good” script. Rufus Sewell as the Crown Prince is also convincing; but alas, the two leads just phoned it in, with Ed Norton’s accent being dodgier than an $11 note.

So, in my rating system I am not inclined to give this movie more than 5/10. That is on par with brain-dead glamour fair such as 2 Fast, 2 Furious, because ultimately, that is all this movie is.

* You might look at Johnathan Strange and Mr Norell for a story which shows how Giant Cosmic Power ™ can be about as useful as a third nipple.

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7 Responses to The Illusionist [2006]

  1. panda_pitt says:

    Did you ever see Children Of Men? Or were you in Greece while that was playing here…

    • mashugenah says:

      No, it was not yet open in Greece, and I haven’t gotten round to it here. Is it very good?

      • panda_pitt says:

        It’s really brilliant, I just thought I’d ask as you were talking about best movie-going experiences. Also, you of all people must see Brick 🙂

      • mashugenah says:

        I always intended to go see it, and then I was too busy. I hope it won’t lose much coming to DVD.

      • panda_pitt says:

        It’s really brilliant, I just thought I’d ask as you were talking about best movie-going experiences. Also, you of all people must see Brick 🙂

  2. I thought that the love story was deliberately understated, to emphasise Eisenheim’s character as a very controlled and confined man. I don’t see the 12 year gap as an issue – they were forcibly separated as children, very completely; part of the story is about how they remembered how they felt about each other, and slotted straight back into the old relationship with equal or greater passion.

    And he doesn’t really do magic. There are several points where it’s suggested that there are mechanical tricks involved, such as the policeman being given the notebook of tricks, and the scientists showing the Crown Prince how his ‘back-from-the-dead’ trick could be made to work.

    • mashugenah says:

      I thought that the love story was deliberately understated, to emphasise Eisenheim’s character as a very controlled and confined man.

      This did come across somewhat in the “main” part of the movie, but the flash-back prologue there wasn’t much sense of anything, I thought. In the event that they wanted to show a detailed character portrait, perhaps they should have spent a bit more time on the small character moments which would construct such a thing.

      part of the story is about how they remembered how they felt about each other, and slotted straight back into the old relationship with equal or greater passion.

      Except, as stated, I couldn’t buy the love story from the way it was presented. I honestly think I’d have had an easier time just assuming that one had existed once they met in the present-timeline.

      And he doesn’t really do magic.

      Given that no explanation from the film-makers is forthcoming about how the tricks work, I’m skeptical that they could work. There are a lot of moments where they could have had some kind of reveal, but instead just continue to be sly. I also think that the characters inside the film were too cynical about magic for there to be a cynical explanation.

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