The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, October 07, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Illusionist

Full review behind the jump

The Illusionist

: Neil Burger
: Neil Burger, based on Steven Millhauer’s short story Eisenheim the Illusionist
: Bob Yari, Cathy Schulman, Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien
: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson

Although I haven’t read it, I can imagine the qualities that would, in the short prose form of Steven Millhauer’s story “
Eisenheim the Illusionist”, fire the imagination. They are the same qualities that so fatally cripple Neil Burger’s film adaptation The Illusionist, a demonstration of the hazards inherent in trying to capture on camera the hypnotizing charms of stage magic.

You see, we’ve been conditioned as moviegoers to accept that, by now, you can put just about any old thing on screen that can be imagined. We’re no longer the generation that would put stock in the marketing hook: “
You will believe a man can fly.” We’ve accepted that it’s a lie and merely ask that it be a novel and entertaining lie.

Truly moving stage magic depends on our primal desire to
believe, to let our dreaming space fill the gaps in what our eyes tell us is an affront to reality. The audiences that pack the theatre where turn-of-the-century conjurer Eisenheim (Edward Norton) works his dark trade need to believe that what he is producing on stage is real. And in order for the plot to work its magic on us, we have to believe too, at least temporarily. Only we don’t, because the movie betrays itself as a lie, illuminating the perspective of a character that should be mysterious in order to give more screen time to a movie star, and goosing his illusions with modern digital effects to the extent that not even David Copperfield, today, could put before our eyes what Eisenheim manages.

The movie takes so many right and romantic steps at the beginning. It’s Vienna, where Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, effectively dastardly) broods, drinks, abuses women and schemes to hasten his inheritance of the throne. His courtship of neighboring royal Sophie (Jessica Biel) might well play a role in this. What he does not know is that Sophie has kept her heart for a young man she played with long ago, a poor carpenter’s son who did magic tricks.

The flashback sequences achieve a subtly-breathtaking effect – I’m not sure what marriage of techniques is used but there’s a kind of flicker and glow about them that’s reminiscent of silent films (they even use that relic of a camera flourish – the iris effect). Cinematographer Dick Pope shot the visionary Dark City as well as a number of Mike Leigh’s films, the combination of painterly eye and sensitivity to the intimacy of performance is one of The Illusionist’s best assets.

On the subject of performance, I conclude here that it is impossible for Paul Giamatti to give a bad one. In what is by rights the central role of the film, he plays Chief Inspector Uhl, a policeman who is observant without being especially clever, and morally compromised without being especially mean.

Giamatti does not overplay the more authoritarian means Uhl has of keeping the peace, he never judges his roles but seeks the simple and the good in them. In Uhl he finds a butcher’s son who has benefited from winning the Prince’s favor and knows there’s only so much benefit someone of his station will ever truly reap from such an arrangement. He is determined to enjoy it to the extent he can. To him, Eisenheim, who glides into town to beguile the populace and take impudent jabs at the Crown Prince’s authority, is a challenge that is at first invigorating, then deeply worrisome.

I say “by rights” only because the movie keeps refusing to let him hold the spotlight. I don’t begrudge Norton, an intelligent and chameleonic actor, the joy of playing at prestidigitator. He cuts a dashing figure on stage, with his dark clothes and smooth soliloquies about time and life and death. He understands that these fancies he spins both lull and distract the audience, so they do not see the wheels turning underneath the latest trick.

But where he should be opaque the movie cuts right through, revealing his anguish, his undiminished desire for Sophie, and his naked willingness to get her by whatever means are within his powers. With every private minute spent with him, the shape of the movie lies exposed before you, leaving only the details along the way to be noted. We get the benefit of seeing things Uhl cannot, and so we cannot sympathize with his panic as the tricks grow more outlandish, and the stakes truly life-and-death.

And it must be said, Jessica Biel does not have anything approaching the larger-than-life charisma needed to substantiate Eisenheim’s earth-moving passion.

Neil Burger, who previously wrote and directed the well-reviewed curio Interview with the Assassin (a fake documentary purporting to present an exclusive tell-all by the real killer of JFK) seems out of his comfort zone in the machinery of a classic melodrama, which is what The Illusionist really is. Serviceable writing aside he has an obvious affection for showmen and grand gestures, and travels far enough down the proper corridors of film history that a really smashing movie seems almost within reach. But it is that film history, which has advanced us to the point where seeing is decidedly not believing, which crumbles the foundation from under us.


Post a Comment

<< Home