PG CERT, 110 MINS
Aside from his stick-on, strong-man moustache, there is something particularly dislikeable about Rufus Sewell's Prince Leopold in Neil Burger's new Edwardian melodrama. The Illusionist. Feeling threatened by Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician who has 19thcentury Vienna (and Leopold's lover Sophie) in raptures, the prince invites him to do a private performance at the palace. After each trick he stops the performance and inspects Eisenheim's person, forcing him to shake his sleeves and turn around, desperate to "bust" his magic trick. He fails.
No one has ever liked spoilsports. But what struck me was how the prince's aggressive suspicion of Eisenheim seemed so modern and how much more odious it was because of that reminiscence — like someone from our own time sent to ruin the magical atmosphere of the olden days.
This might be taking it a bit far, but as the second film on the trot (since The Prestige before Christmas) about grand Victorian magicians, might we not take The Illusionist as a sign of growing nostalgia towards mystery? We are surrounded by Prince Leopold-types these days, know-alls, reveal-ails, servants at the altar of "transparency". Might it be that people felt more comfortable with a little obscurity?
The strength of The Illusionist is its atmosphere (hence its Oscar nomination for art direction). Gothic spires, Victorian cloaks and canes, noisy horse-drawn carriages, gas lamps — all this is a crucial backdrop; but what really dates it are the naïve, credulous faces of the magician's audience. Entranced by Eisenheim's illusions, these are crowds you would never see today. Someone would have hollered, or cynically suggested how the tricks might have worked — nowadays we know magic isn't true, and, strangely, we are the poorer for it.
I don't think I am calling for a return to the dark ages of superstition and ignorance; nor exactly to the repressed hypocrisy of the Victorian era. But in The Illusionist (and its evident popularity) I sense a nostalgia for a less clear-cut world. Wouldn't it be nice, just occasionally, to be duped again? Personally. I would feel safer and happier in a world where children are allowed to believe in fairy tales, where the Government has powers that we don't even know about, where religion is governed by mystics rather than fundamentalists and where art is about expression rather than business and special effects.
In the end, our own modernity is the ruination of this movie. In theory, the plot is about the powerful crown prince and his loyal police inspector (Paul Giamatti) competing with the poor but ingenious Eisenheim for the affections of the beautiful Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel). But it is all very tepid; Rufus Sewell glowers well enough. and Giamatti has some small moments of animation, but it is not enough to compensate for the totally humourless waxworks of Norton and Biel in the lead roles. No, the only surviving point of the film is to make us part of the enraptured audience: and — you've got it — we are too modem to be enraptured. We enjoy the atmosphere, but the awe is absent.
Oh, how I wanted to gasp when Eisenheim throws his handkerchief into the auditorium and watches it sprout wings and fly off as a dove; how I wanted to be moved when an orange tree grows out of his bucket in seconds, or when he summons the spirits of the dead. But all I kept thinking, over and over like a hellish mantra, was "CGI, CGI, CGI!" Magic tricks don't work on film, silly! We know they've been added a few months ago by some boffin on an Apple Mac in Los Angeles. Apparently Edward Norton learnt a large number of the tricks himself to spare them having to be added in post-production, but frankly why did he bother? We don't even know which ones were "real". At one point, a sudden and unexpected tear rolls down the Duchess's face — I bet that was CGI too.
The whole plot of the film itself works, in the manner of A Beautiful Mind or The Usual Suspects, with the audience being duped by an overall trick that only the final denouement reveals. It's to do with the prince and the lover, and I won't tell you the details. Suffice to say that, miss, I guessed it really early. I know how he did it. I was never really taken in. I wanted to feel part of that world of mystery and possibility, but I knew too much.
Depressingly, I am just another Prince Leopold, the modern know-itall, this time without the stick-on moustache.