Earlier this year, we saw The Prestige on DVD. That movie, based on Christopher Priest’s novel, was cold, cold, cold, but also had delights such as a cameo by David Bowie, and a chilling last image. However, the female characters were cardboard constructions moved around the board by the magicians. It was the kind of film that, due to amazing cinematography and some good acting by the male leads, held your attention while watching it, but faded from memory soon thereafter.
Now we’ve seen The Illusionist, based on a novella by Seven Millhauser, and it’s really about the same in quality, but on the warm end of the spectrum. Edward Norton plays the illusionist, separated from his aristocratic childhood friend, only to find her again in Vienna, on the verge of marrying a psychotic idiot who plans to overthrow his father, the emperor.
The tricks on display in The Illusionist are a lot more fun and imaginative than the ones in The Prestige, but there’s also no real attempt to explain how they’re done–including supposed “raising of the dead”–and thus it’s a lot easier to go wild.
After the psychotic idiot murders the illusionist’s love, the movie starts to go downhill, despite an amazing performance by Paul Giamatti as the police inspector, torn between doing his duty and wanting to stay on the good side of the aristocracy.
Why, do you ask, does it go south so quickly? Because in any movie called The Illusionist, it is only normal to be suspicious of what you’re seeing on the screen (I guessed the plot twist about 30 seconds after they put it in motion). Further, without giving away the plot, every last thing the illusionist puts in motion is pulled off perfectly, which, ultimately, is boring and unrealistic. Finally, a scene near the end with the police inspector on a train station platform grinning maniacally as he puts the pieces together isn’t exactly convincing.
The Illusionist is the fairytale version of the colder The Prestige. Both movies are flawed. Both could use a shot of whatever the other is drinking. Somewhere in the middle lies a perfect movie.