The Illusionist (2006)

2010 #32
Neil Burger | 104 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

A Blu-ray release of The Illusionist has just been announced. Which is fair enough, of course. But if you were considering a blind buy, probably based on hearing it’s “a bit like The Prestige”, then please allow me to stick the knife in a little first.

Let’s begin with a pet hate of mine: this being a mid-’00s film, it of course begins near the end and finds an excuse to jump back to the start before eventually catching up with itself. As we move into the ’10s, I hope we’re seeing the back of this cheap and irritating screenwriting trick — which, having done my share of creative writing modules at university, I know is the kind of thing new writers are taught as a Good Thing because it allows you to jump right into the action. Maybe this helps you sell your script; personally, I’ve just found it a grating trend that needs bucking. What’s wrong with starting where the story starts?

At the other end — past the bit where we joined — sits a last-minute ‘twist’ explanation for all we’ve seen. But it’s a bit half-arsed, just repeating shots we’ve seen in a new order (with a few additions, to be fair), leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks… which is largely no chore (personally, I’d suspected that all along anyway), but it leaves significant important chunks unexplained, hoping to gloss over them by bamboozling us with a lot of other information. It doesn’t succeed.

The story itself — you remember those? It’s the bit between the attention-grabbing opening and preposterous-twist finale — is mediocre with or without the finale. It’s a something-and-nothing account of a Poor Boy who loves a Rich Girl he can’t have and… oh, I can’t even be bothered to explain it.

Writer/director Neil Burger has some nice effects going to help conjure up the period, using lighting, grading and the occasional wipe to evoke silent movies and the like during some segments, particularly — and pertinently, if predictably — the flashbacks. Other effects are less welcome, however: the magic is all obviously fake. This rather takes away any mystery, leaving the entire film as just a fantasy — very different from The Prestige in this regard.

Performance wise, everyone struggles with their accents. That this is the most notable aspect of the cast is, obviously, not a good thing. Ed Norton, looking rather like Derren Brown, is suitably enigmatic as the titular magician, while Paul Giamatti delivers the best performance as a conflicted detective, torn between his intrigue at the illusionist, duty to the Prince, and respect for the law. He’s by far the best thing about the film.

As comparisons with The Prestige are inevitable, particularly as both films were ultimately released around the same time, I’ll briefly put them head-to-head. Both concern stage magic in a similar-enough period setting, debate about whether the tricks are just that or actually supernatural powers, a love story that goes awry, which involves a fatal rivalry… But they’re actually very different films. The Prestige jumps about in time in a more complex way than The Illusionist, but this also has a point. The former’s story is more original, more engaging, its use of magic — real or not — more captivating. I fear I could go on, but it’s succinctly summed up thus: in this comparison, The Illusionist comes up short.

On the bright side, I avoided a pun there. You know, like, “The Illusionist just doesn’t have The Prestige’s magic.”


3 out of 5

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