Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fin de Siècle Magic Leads to The Greatest Trick of All, or Thoughts on The Illusionist

Magic, like juggling, mime and tap dancing, is an ancient theatrical art form that often struggles to find relevance and an audience in an ocean of modern entertainment options.  The Illusionist (2006), attempts to bridge that gap by telling a story about a magician without actually focusing on the magic, but rather using it as a plot device to tell an edgy fairy tale set in 1889 Vienna.  Edward Norton is Eisenheim, the titular Illusionist who takes Vienna by storm and attracts the attention of both Paul Giamatti from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) as Chief Inspector Uhl and Jessica Biehl as the Duchess Sophie von Teschen. 
Most of the charm of The Illusionist lies in the movie’s setting; Fin de Siècle Vienna at the height of the city’s intellectual and artistic renaissance, but much like Berlin in the 1920’s there’s war on the horizon and that adds a darker theme that can’t be avoided.  The movie is a gorgeous portrait of old Vienna, filmed in coffee houses and theaters lit by gaslight that adds an atmospheric sepia tone to the entire film and perfectly complimented by a dreamy orchestral soundtrack by Phillip Glass.
Edward Norton’s confident professionalism as Eisenheim the Illusionist is counterbalanced Paul Giamatti”s Inspector Uhl, a magic enthusiast and amateur magician who ultimately arrests him for charlatanism, while Jessica Biel has a quiet radiance in an underrated performance as the Duchess Sophie.  After so much complaining about Englishmen playing Americans (looking at you, Andrew Lincoln) it’s nice to see a movie with three Americans playing Europeans.  But every fairy tale needs an evil prince, who is aptly portrayed by Englishman Rufus Sewell as the Crown Prince Leopold.  Everyone knows the Brits make the best villains.
Skillfully directed by Neil Burger of Limitless (2011) and Divergent (2014), the movie has a Caligari-ish vibe, almost a modern German expressionist feel that permeates the art direction, costumes and scenery design.  Watch out for Eddie Marsan, who you know as Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes (2009), Terry from Ray Donovan (2013) and Mr. Norrell in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2015) as Josef Fischer, Eisenheim’s impresario and Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass (2010) as young Eisenheim.
The Illusionist suffered from the misfortune of being released the same year as The Prestige (2006), with the inevitable comparisons; two big budget period dramas about magicians.  But magic as an entertainment genre is problematic because modern audiences don’t like being tricked, they resent it.  Which is ironic because movies are inherently magical; every special effect uses some element of a magic trick, they’re simply not presented as magic.
The magic tricks in The Illusionist are easy to dismiss as CGI effects, and even the sleight of hand can’t be trusted with quick editing and multiple takes.  The movie offers no explanation for Eisenham’s illusions, especially the greatest trick of all, attracting Jessica Biehl with magic.  It kinda works; don’t ever forget that David Copperfield was married to supermodel Claudia Schiffer in the 90s.



my first novel?  thanks for asking:)  it’s a the first book in a 4-volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of killer kung-fu witches, haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, and a 24-hour diner with the best pie in town…
read for free on kindle unlimited or buy the paperback, available at fine bookstores everywhere (amazon).