L, B, and I went to see The Illusionist last night, and it was a fine film. If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to. It’s a brilliant adaptation of Millhauser’s short story, with a strong cast and amazing art credits to boot. Philip Glass composed the score, for Pete’s sake!
I should warn you that there may be some spoilers below, so please read with caution. All the more reason to go see it and then read my thoughts on it.
To be fair, I love these sorts of movies, old fashioned sorts of films set fastidiously in a bygone era. I loved Gosford Park for the care with which they crafted the period, and the detail that was invested, and this is one of the reasons I liked The Illusionist as well. But even beyond this, it was a great movie.
The film was pretty. Lots of use of sepia tone, lens filters, and unique camera angles drove the plot. The art direction was impeccable–I really felt as though I was there, in Vienna, with every detail meticulously attended to. All the passerby in the background were beautifully dressed. The street urchins were tragic. The women were delectable, luscious, lustrous, like beautiful tea cakes. The film felt very real for me, and the camera style enhanced that feeling–I like the diffused, obscure feeling that many of the shots had. I loved the sets and the costumes, the scenes where people are wandering through eerie forests and galloping around on handsome horses. (And all the horses were stunning.) At the end of the movie we emerged in a dazed hush, like we had just spent a few hours in a museum.
The acting was good. Edward Norton was inscrutable and refined. He had the graceful economy of movement that one expects of an illusionist, and he carried the role very elegantly. Paul Giamatti made a good foil for Norton, in his role as a man struggling with the intersection between fantasy and reality, ethical behaviour and a lust for power. There’s a scene early in the film when he is questioning Norton in a subdued and expensive looking eatery, the two of them alone in a room dappled with murky light, and he’s eating and it sounds like he’s cracking Norton in his jaws. Brilliant staging? Yes, but also strong acting. Rufus Sewell made a superb crown prince, arrogant and high handed, yet sensitive at the same time. Jessica Biel was strong as well in her role, and had a surprisingly old-fashioned look to her which lent itself well to the film.
Much of the movie itself was enigmatic and mysterious. I love that the secrets of Eisenheim’s tricks were not revealed, with the exception of two (one of which could be said to have been a mysterious unveiling anyway–certainly I couldn’t replicate the trick from the information given). Viewers could decide for themselves if it was all a game or a trick, or if there was a thread of truth and reality to the illusions he conjured. There were lots of things going on in the film, little undercurrents of tension and scheming, and I have the sense that I could watch it again and again and still see new things.
The plot of the movie was simple, a love story at the core, and at least to me what was going on was obvious. The joy of the film was not “what’s going to happen next,” but “how is this going to unfold?” The film was about an exploration of strength of character and will, about an enduring love, about plotting and scheming and the choices we make, the illusions we swathe ourselves in. My only source of sadness was that I felt as though the ending was tied up too neatly–I would have loved to see a myriad of alternate endings, or had some mystery left, instead of a tidy resolution. (My companions disagreed, and said they felt very satisfied by the ending.)
The film was a great love story, and I had an immense sense of predestination all through the film, that of course these two people would meet and love and be separated and grow and meet again later on in life, and that of course nothing on earth could stand between them, and Norton is reckless and fearless in pursuit of his love for her, and she is willing to go to great lengths to be with him. The scheme that the two put together is cunning and elegant, brilliant and beautiful, and plays upon the weaknesses of all the other characters.
Perhaps everything is an illusion, and an elaborate game, but the film gave me new faith in the power of love.
I also note that old fashioned films like this appear to be coming into vogue, judging from previews we saw for Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia, both nostalgic films set in a bygone (and fascinating) era. I may end up going to see both of these films just for the artistry, and to see how the period is presented. How interesting that films in the thirties and forties looked to the future, and we look to the past for artistic inspiration.