I spent a good portion of yesterday going through and cleaning up old and forgotten blogs, removing what I no longer wanted to keep, and reposting items I felt were worth keeping. Among the old posts was my review of one of my favorite movies, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. At the end of that review, I made mention that my next planned viewing was The Illusionist, a film starring Ed Norton, which was also released at around the same time as The Prestige. I don’t remember it getting nearly as much attention as The Prestige did at the time, and I could explore a number of reasons why. More importantly, I remember that I personally didn’t care for The Illusionist, even a bit. I found it slowly-paced, with visual effects which were inventive in terms of the story if not in their execution. In fact, I came upon an old blog post which was a short and succinct thrashing of the film, which I have in retrospect seen fit to discard rather than repost.
It was a dear friend of mine, himself a magician, who made it clear that he felt I was mistaken in my first impression of the film. He suggested that I was comparing it to The Prestige, which I most certainly was, as was the viewing public in general, I suppose. He reminded me that just because the two movies appeared to have a number of similarities, didn’t mean they could or even should be compared. And as I usually think of films in and of themselves, to have compared the two did in fact seem unfair to the film deemed lacking. My friend suggested I rewatch The Illusionist, at a time when I’d not recently watched The Prestige, and make my final judgment then.
This evening, I finally got around to taking his advice.
It’s still difficult for me to write about one movie without thinking about the other–perhaps because I’ve seen so few movies dealing with magicians as protagonists, and so somehow feel compelled to lump them together. But I have promised myself to deal with The Illusionist on its own merits, which means no comparisons. I’ll try, at least!
I did think during both viewings that Ed Norton looked simply splendid as Eisenheim, the illusionist. I haven’t seen a lot of his movies, but in trailers for other films he has always appeared kind of scrawny, scruffy, like somebody you’d just as soon kick to the curb as look at them. Fight Club springs to mind immediately, where comparing him to Brad Pitt yields less than stellar results. But in The Illusionist, Norton looks powerful and handsome, stronger and more enigmatic. His voice still has a thinner timbre than I like for a leading man, but it worked well enough for the character. His stage presence as an illusionist was really lovely.
Visually, I found the use of the dark halos around various scenes distracting. And about midway through the movie, I had forgotten that the majority of the story up to that point had been told basically in flashback. But more importantly, I discovered why comparing this movie to any other–particularly The Prestige–was a big mistake. In my first viewing, I was watching the tricks–how they were done, how they were presented, how the audience responded–and not only were they very different tricks, producing very different results, but they were not the main point of the movie. When I was bothered at the slow plot the first time, with “less action” or I suppose less stage time for our illusionist, I was missing the point entirely. This movie is not about the tricks or how they are done, but why they are done. And it is only by the end that you realize that you have actually been fooled all along. But more importantly, you know why you were fooled. This movie is less a magic trick (hence a “lighter” reveal–one not incredibly unexpected) than it is a love story, and when you pay more attention to Eisenheim and Sonya and their experiences, the true nature of the movie is clear.
I may in fact watch The Illusionist a couple more times, in order to better savor the true story at hand. I also still need to erase the spectre of The Prestige, as even while I’m writing this I’m still fighting the urge to compare the two. A more accurate comparison to The Illusionist (if one must be made) might be Shakespeare In Love, where once again our protagonist is more notable, more unusual, but the story remains one about love. Could I pick apart the Shakespearean acting in that movie? Probably. But that wasn’t what brought me to that particular movie, so I didn’t judge that aspect of it. I just let the love story unfold and enjoyed it as it did. The Illusionist deserves the same treatment, because that is how I came to really enjoy it. I’m very glad I gave it another look.