Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In this hand a perfectly ordinary film...

There is a point in any magic act when the magician produces an ordinary object: a card or a coin or maybe a handkerchief. The prestidigitator asks an audience member to examine the object and declare whether or not the coin is in fact merely a coin. When the viewer declares the object to be ordinary the magician then causes the object to do something fantastic: the coin disappears, the card changes faces, the handkerchief turns into a rose.

The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, a peasant-boy who falls in love with the beautiful Duchess Sophie, played by Jessica Biel, in turn-of-the-century Vienna. When the young lovers are forced apart by their respective social standings Eisenheim the peasant departs from Vienna only to return many years later as Eisenheim the great illusionist. In his absence Duchess Sophie has become engaged to the vicious Prince Leopold, a truly dangerous villain played like a ticking time-bomb by Rufus Sewell. As Eisenheim attempts to bridge the social gap between himself and the object of his affection, Prince Leopold unleashes Chief Inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti, on the magician. Eisenheim pits his sleight-of-hand against Leopold’s corruption and the fate of the Duchess lies in the hands of the winner.

A good film works a lot like a magic act. A filmmaker produces a setting or a scenario familiar to the viewer at least in quality if not in kind. The filmmaker then causes the familiar scenario to be transformed into something fantastic. The viewer is able to look at a love-triangle, for instance, in a way that he or she has been unable to before. The Illusionist adopts elements of the magic act in its representation of the young Viennese love triangle: trickery and obfuscation leave the viewer wondering where the metaphorical coin has vanished to before causing it to magically appear again.

However, as a magic act The Illusionist falls flat. Rather than causing something ordinary to become fantastic, The Illusionist begins with a fantastic premise and molds it into a thoroughly ordinary film. Class issues are brought up-with the disparity in social standing between the lovers as well as with the larger disparity between the monarchy and the commoners- however issues of class are abandoned halfway through the film and never mentioned again.

With the exception of Rufus Sewell’s prince, the best thing to be said about the acting is that everyone showed up. Giamatti seems to be holding the same Get Out Of Jail Free card that Kevin Spacey enjoyed in the late nineties. Edward Norton’s Eisenheim also seems to coast on the steam of other great Norton characters. Jessica Biel’s Duchess Sophie seems content to wait for the men to decide who gets to have her. All the characters make decisions which seem to be rooted less in character development and more in plot requirements.

As the magic act that is The Illusionist winds down, the viewer is left wondering why the characters have done what they have done A great magic act, as well as a great movie, should leave a viewer with a question in his mind. However, this question should be “How?” not “Why?”


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