Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Illusionist

Lowdown: A magician in early 20th century Vienna fights a prince for the love of a duchess.
2006 brought us two A list films concerning magicians, both of high star power gauge. The Prestige ended up the more famous, but I was still curious about the also-ran The Illusionist. My main source of attraction was Edward Norton, whom only a few years ago I considered one of the best contemporary American actors around but who seemed to have faded in recent years. Now that I watched The Illusionist, it seems to me as if the story of that film is the story of Norton’s fading.
We are set back to early 20th century Vienna, where a young teen befriends and falls in love with a would be duchess. Alas, class differences mean they are separated by force. Decades later, that teen returns to Vienna, referring to himself as Eisenheim (Norton), and making his living out of performing some amazing magic tricks. Personally, I failed to comprehend how the crowd couldn’t see those for the rather cheap digital effects they were.
Eisenham's tricks are so flashy they attract the attention of the head of police (Paul Giamatti), who in turn attracts the attention of the crown prince (Rufus Sewell), who in turn comes to see a show for himself, and in turn volunteers his duchess fiancĂ© (Jessica Biel) to aid Eisenheim in performing a particularly dangerous trick involving encounters with the dead. Guess what? On stage, the two realize they are each other’s forgotten love. Only that now there is a powerful crown prince in between them; a prince with the power of the police on his side, a prince also known for treating his women brutally. It would take special magic to bring the two lovers together and overcome the rational inquisitive efforts of Giamatti’s lot.
There can be no doubt as to The Illusionist feeling heavily contrived and quite predictable, despite its sort of an M. Night Shyamalan style twisty ending. However, I strongly suspect the film’s very poor presentation over Channel 9 GEM’s supposedly high definition presentation must have contributed a lot to my dissatisfaction with everything The Illusionist had to give. Everything was made to look worse than it is: Norton’s acting often looked pathetic, as when he grieves a personal tragedy that befell him. In a film that fails to utilize the supernatural card in order to disassociate itself from the regular template, the quality of presentation was crucial.
Worst scene: The big twist at the end is revealed to us through a vision in Giamatti’s head. Problem is, it is revealed to us only in that form. Us viewers are expected to ponder for ourselves whether the vision is true or not, which is rather unsatisfying. Frankly, and particularly with the way that conclusion is presented, I was just happy the film was over.
Overall: A lacklustre affair that wastes a lot of good talent. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

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