the illusionist (2006)

18 03 2007

Edward Norton / Paul Giamatti / Jessica Biel / Rufus Sewell
dir. Neil Burger 2006

A magician clashes with a rival for the affections of a woman whose death locks the pair in an obsessive battle of wits. Sounds a bit like The Prestige, although The Prestige sounds like a bit more fun than this lush but dour affair.

The problem with on-screen magic is that CGI renders it a bit hollow. The film never seems to make up its mind whether Eisenheim, Norton’s magician, is actually magical, despite his repeated assertions to the contrary. We never get a real sense of how he does it, but maybe that’s the point.

We don’t get much of a sense of what’s going on behind Eisenheim’s guarded stage persona either. Norton is as watchably intense as ever, but the chemistry between Biel and Norton never really ignites as they seem to keep a mannerly distance between them. Biel doesn’t get to do much beyond be doe-eyed and luminous, and we never really get a sense of her personality or the restrictions of her privileged position.

By contrast, Giamatti, here a genial but pragmatic police chief, is always a pleasure to spend time with. Rufus Sewell is the stand out as the diamond-eyed, callow prince. Watch out too for all the British TV who-theys? wandering about glowering in top hats.

The Illusionist is structured as an illusion; we see something happen and wonder what we’ve just seen, and how it’s done. Unfortunately this means that the film is only as good as the payoff we wait impatiently for, and sadly the payoff is a bit rubbish, aping The Usual Suspects and – well, I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say that this particular pair of star-crossed lovers settle for the oldest trick in the book.

Not exactly a magical experience then, but not a bad parlour trick.

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