Monday, 5 March 2007

The Illusionist - review by Emma J Lennox

Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Neil Burger (screenplay), Steven Millhauser (short story)
Running Time: 110 mins
Certificate: PG
Released: 2nd March

Magic can be tough, just ask David Blaine. The magician famously stood inside a glass box for 44 days, sulking. Was it magic? Or was it the most boring piece of performance art since somebody thought standing as still as a statue was a fun idea? Neil Burger's The Illusionist, however, will have you longing for the days you could watch an encased American for entertainment value. Set in early 1900s Vienna, Ed Norton plays Eisenheim the Illusionist; an enigmatic performer who frequents the same stylist as Derren Brown. The plot involves Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart (Jessica Biel), an evil prince (Rufus Sewell) and hanging around waiting for something to happen, (hopefully a murder), is police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).

With the difficult premise out of the way, we can enjoy the visual spectacle of the magic show. On stage, Eisenheim appears to be no less powerful than a Viennese Jesus; butterflies fly to his command and trees grow and bare fruit. To the audience within the film, who have never encountered CGI before, this is awe inspiring stuff. The audience in the cinema, however, will be bored rigid. Cinematographer Dick Pope tries a 'vignette' effect over the imagery and Phillip Glass does a spine tingling score but both attempts at mysticism are punctured by the story's lack of imagination. At one point the Crown Prince Leopold asks Eisenheim to reveal the contents of his sleeves. If you're hoping a decent character or a twisted motive is hiding up there, you'll be sorely disappointed. Like the plot holes in the script, he reveals nothing. Just for fun, why not check up your own sleeves?

The conclusion will only antagonise the most reasonable of people when they realise they've been duped by the filmmakers into watching a nonsensical piece of trickery. Poorly underestimating the audience Burger attempts to 'explain' what many of us have worked out long before. In what Montage are dubbing 'the Kobayashi moment,' Giamatti does an impressive amount of 'realising' whilst flashbacks of things he couldn't possibly have seen tell the story of how it happened. Unfortunately this leaves all the big questions unanswered in misjudged ambiguity. This illusionist is not to be trusted.

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