The Illusionist PG, selected cinemas The Illusionist is one of those films that gains points for trying to be clever and different and ingenious but then promptly loses them all for being not clever or different or ingenious enough. It’s frustrating, really, because you can feel the good film trying to get out — ‘let me out, let me out!’ — but a banal script, some woeful miscasting and a rather desperate plot ‘twist’ simply won’t let it. I put the ‘twist’ in quotation marks because you’ll figure it out way before the characters, and will spend at least an hour of this film wishing they’d figure it out so we can all call it a day and get home for whatever it is we like to do at home. Personally, I like to nap and eat cheese.
Certainly, The Illusionist, set in 19th-century Austria, is delicious to look at, and the story begins promisingly enough with two children, a carpenter’s son and a young duchess, being separated because their close friendship is frowned upon by her social circle. ‘Make us disappear,’ the girl, Sophie, urges the boy as her guardians close in. But the boy, who is also an amateur conjurer, because he met a wizardy man under a tree, cannot, and so they are forced to part. At this point, you may well be thinking, as I did: oh, terrific, a Romeo and Juliet-style period romp embroidered with some ‘ta-da’ magical bits. Bring it on. But then it is brought on, and it’s just not any good.
We next catch up with the boy and girl 15 years later in Vienna, where the strudel looks fine and the population appears to speak in varying accents, ranging from heavily Germanic, faux-Viennese through to pure Oxford (for heaven’s sake, as a film goer is it too much to ask that accents are at least consistent, if not dead-on?). Anyway, that boy is now Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the great stage illusionist, while Sophie has matured into modelturned-actress Jessica Biel, which is nice. (I wouldn’t mind maturing into Jessica Biel one day; wouldn’t object in the least. She is very, very beautiful.) But Sophie is not happy. Against her will, she has been betrothed to the villainous Crown Prince Leopold, played by Rufus Sewell, who wears a pantomime baddie moustache and does nothing but glower, lest we forget just how villainous he is and how miserable Sophie is, which we don’t, because of all that glowering. Now, will Eisenheim be able to steal Sophie from Leopold by finally being able to make her ‘disappear’? That’s the question. Do we care? That’s another question altogether, but I’m not convinced we do.
Although Eisenheim does perform some neat illusions, I wish Neil Burger, the writer and director here, could have shown similar sleight of hand. The script is clunky, the rips in the internal logic are crudely sewed up by supernatural magic, which is kind of cheating, and the characters are what? Cardboard cut-outs? You know, if they’d turned round and I’d seen ‘Frosties’ or ‘Weetabix’ printed somewhere on their backs, I would not have been at all surprised.
I feel particularly bad for Edward Norton (or ‘Ed’, as I like to call him), who is usually such a fine actor, but here is required to do nothing but appear distant, dispassionate and gimlet-eyed at all times. His character is given no warmth, no humour, no self-awareness even. As for Biel, she’s an Olympian pouter who, with her tumbling hair and neat botty in riding breeches, plays it less like a Viennese noblewoman and more as though she’s stepped directly from a Charles Worthington salon into a Ralph Lauren commercial. The real pity here is that the love story, which is meant to be at the heart of it all, seriously doesn’t cut. Honestly, I’ve seen more sexual chemistry between Rita and Norris in The Kabin on Corrie, which has to be saying something. In fact, the only decent character is probably Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti; wonderful in Sideways), who, at Leopold’s instruction, must keep Eisenheim and Sophie apart. He, at least, is fleshed out, looks like he belongs in the 19th century, has a bit of fun, and is fun to watch.
So, in short? Well, the scenery is very pleasant and this film would kill a couple of hours on a plane. But I don’t think I’d advise schlepping to the cinema rather than, say, staying at home for a nap then a bit of cheese. In fact, I even think the nap and the cheese are the far better bet.