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- The Illusionist
On Dvd & Streaming
T here's always the chance of some project-duplication in Hollywood. Recently, we had an extreme case: two films about Truman Capote. It's a welcome corrective to the other magician film, which came out late last year: The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan, about two competing conjurors.
That was a rather swollen and self-admiring picture with an animatronic cameo from David Bowie; it proceeded at a stately pace - more David Nixon than David Blaine. The Illusionist is more modest in conception, with more control and more focus; its trick ending is more guessable but more realistic and more satisfying, too.
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At its centre is an enigmatic showman in turn-of-the-century Vienna, played with charisma and poise by Edward Norton; the director is Neil Burger, who made the much-admired JFK conspiracy-mockumentary Interview With the Assassin in He has here freely adapted a short story by Pulitzer prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, and the result is a smart, sharp, economically achieved piece of work.
Vienna is an interesting location: the home of innovations in demagoguery, psychology and the inducement of mass hysteria. Norton plays Abramovitz, a low-born Austrian cabinet-maker's son who as a boy discovers in himself a vocation for magic. He has an innocently platonic romance with aristocratic little Sophie, who has been charmed by his tricks: it is an ill-starred adventure which ends with the pair being tragically parted by the furious authorities.
CANCELLED - FREE Film Screening: The Illusionist () by Neil Burger | Senate House Library
Years later, Abramovitz appears on stage in the capital, now called Eisenheim the Illusionist: a brilliant magician and the toast of the town with his staggering tricks, presented austerely, almost academically, without a glamorous assistant. But fate is to provide him with one, the beautiful fiancee of no less a person than Crown Prince Leopold Rufus Sewell. One night, to the excited gasps of the audience, Leopold superciliously allows his intended bride, played by Jessica Biel, to descend from the royal box and assist Eisenheim with a trick.
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It is only when they are up on stage, in front of hundreds, that this young woman and the illusionist are close enough to recognise each other - and to let fate and dangerous love take their course once again. Where The Illusionist scores over The Prestige is that it is about a duel, not a duel between two magicians, however - with their dramatically self-cancelling equivalence in persona and function - but between a magician and a prince. The original Millhauser story was about two magicians, and Burger may have wanted to distinguish it from the Nolan film.
This movie really is about "prestige": one is a commoner, the other an aristocrat, but Eisenheim's celebrity status easily trumps Leopold's stuffy Ruritanian style. Leopold is nettled by the illusionist's blandly insolent refusal to reveal his secrets when he makes his condescending visits backstage, and by his own inability to guess them.
On a fundamental level, though, The Illusionist succeeds: While the storytellers are at work, the spell holds. The Duchess takes the stage, and for a moment it seems Eisenheim is the one under a spell.
But they have met, a lifetime ago. Humiliated and abandoned, Edward vanished and began a long journey in which he would completely reinvent himself. The star-crossed lovers face an even greater obstacle now in the figure of Leopold, whose planned marriage to the Duchess is an important part of his political ambitions.
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But Eisenheim is no longer the hapless teenager who was once sent packing in the woods. His calm dignity is like a cloak pulled tightly around him; never again will he be humiliated, though under the right circumstances he is willing to humiliate others, even Leopold himself. As much with his insinuating, impudent manner as his seemingly impossible stage miracles, the illusionist stumps the crown prince, an egoist who prides himself on his rationalism and sophistication and is eager to prove himself beyond any deception.
In part, The Illusionist is about the willing suspension of disbelief, the readiness to accept and appreciate the illusion on its own terms. Instead, Burger allows Uhl, and the audience, to ponder and cross-examine his illusions even as we are entertained by them. In any case, Leopold permits himself no illusions when it comes to Sophie. He has her movements followed, and is crudely blunt about the possibility that the duchess and the illusionist may be having an affair.