| The Red Right Hand
Maybe it was the gap left by the lack of a Harry Potter film, maybe it was simply a genre that needed a re-vamp. Whatever the reason, 2006 heralded two quite different films about magicians. Depending on where you live, the order of release will be different. For the Americans, The Illusionist came out in September, followed by the October release of The Prestige. Both proved to be successful releases but the dark intensity of The Prestige saw it take the lead. Subsequently, The Illusionist's UK release was put back until February. I loved The Prestige, it's a dark and original piece that astounds and amazes but to overlook The Illusionist would be a mistake. True, the depth is not nearly as apparent, nor the deception as believably subtle but it still offers an intricate tale of murder and misdirection. Based on Jeannette Angell's novel of the same title, our story opens on 1900's Vienna. Starting with Eisenheim's [Norton] final trick and then cutting back to his childhood, we see the beginnings of a friendship between a young magician and a Duchess of similar age. Naturally, they are forbidden to see each other, so Eisenheim (as he will come to be known) sets off for fifteen years, travelling the world. On his return he opens with a stage performance that baffles, pleases and amazes crowds. The next night, the Crown Prince Leopold [Sewell] - a sceptical man of science - and his fiancee are present in the audience. The Duchess [Biel] agrees to take part in one of his tricks but still fails to recognise his true identity. The story builds momentum as the Prince becomes more insulted by the magician's acts. The Chief of Police, Inspector Uhl [Giamatti], is ordered to follow the magician and close him down. As our events come to a head, the Duchess is murdered and an investigation launched. Eisenheim eventually returns to the stage with a much darker act that will have the city questioning everything they believe.
There are flaws, it has to be said. The tricks aren't plausible, almost as if the director is not only trying to con his Venetian audience but his modern audience too. It's not enough that the tricks astound them, they have to appear extraordinary to a desensitized public who have witnessed the impossible through CGI; which is such a shame, as Norton spent months training with British magician, James Freedman. The plot is good enough and the twists and turns serve their purposes well. The acting is also commendable but the miscasting is apparent. Rufus Sewell offers a fairly sinister but bland portrayal of a corrupt prince, a part he's been playing throughout his last five films. Jessica Biel is one of those actresses that I feel has a niche, she just hasn't found it yet. Her performance is pleasing enough but lacks a conviction that could have carried the role a little better. On the other hand, Ed Norton's acting is almost always phenomenal, one need only watch American History X to understand that, but he tries to remain so serene and calm through the first half and then degenerates into a worn out bearded-bloke on stage, in a chair. I understand why he looks that way, as the illusion breaks him down and takes him out of it, that makes sense but Eisenheim doesn't come off as drained, more fed up. However, the cinematography, set designs and costumes and breath-taking. A living, breathing, upper-class Austria is present, the likes of which you would expect to see in a period romance, as opposed to a film about a conjurer.
The element that made The Prestige so delightfully confusing was the realism of it all. The tricks were not only simple, they were believable, so when the audience was shown something on the next level, people didn't know what to think; which is the reaction the films' fictitious audience shared. Even though we are given an explanatory scene that wraps up the last five minutes it still feels like it may have been pulled off, that it's possible the piecing together was completely of the Inspectors' own volition. That, of course, is not what the film is trying to say, so feels cheap and a little too easy. Overall, the enjoyment factor is high. If you have paid to see an entertaining piece with romance, mystery and a murder-trail thriller, then you'll get exactly what you want. If you want something you can ponder over, speculate about and discuss at great length, then this film falls short. As I said, it's a film of merit that deserves attention but its release could not have been more untimely.
16th February 2007
The Scene To Look Out For:
Eisenheim offers Inspector Uhl a trade. If he can successfully guess which hand he places the ball, he will give him the secrets of his jaw-dropping 'orange tree' trick. It plays through well and naturally, Eisenheim correctly guesses which hand the ball is in. It's not the explanation that makes it a good scene, but the look on Giamatti's face as realisation dawns upon him is brilliant; the brain sparking, just like the punch-line of a good joke. He just quietly mutters, "Oh, oh yes. Yes, I like that. That is good."
Paul Giamatti's performance saves so many scenes that you can't help but feel he's stolen the film; combining fan-boy with Poirot, loyal royalist with a believer of justice and the law.
"Perhaps there is truth in this illusion"
In A Few Words:
"Had an element of realism been injected it would be a strong contender for The Prestige's title, unfortunately, it's a bit of a one-trick-wonder"