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The Illusionist back to reviews
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Your Mileage May Vary
SPOILERS AHOY.

The Illusionist tries to mesh two genres—a lush romantic melodrama set in a fairytale land of duchesses, princes, and intrigue (a la The Prisoner of Zenda) with the moody mystery of a policeman trying to unravel the secrets of a magician who's been mixed up in murder (like The Prestige). And it nearly works, but not quite. In the end, the mystery's final twist destroys the melodrama.

I badly wanted the movie to work. Who doesn't love that Edwardian fantasy land filled with delectable dukes and pristine princesses, political intrigue and despairing love? It is Ruritania, Austria, or somewhere in Eastern Europe where anyone worth their salt is an Archduke or a Princess von something, and titled dignitaries mix with gipsies, international adventurers, and even illusionists; a not-quite civilised place where men still fight duels for love and honour.

The Illusionist pretends to be this kind of story. But it soon gives away its true nature. When Eisenheim and Sophie fall into bed, there's no pretence left to be kept up. It isn't set in 1900s Ruritania—it's firmly planted in the 2000s, where "whore" is just a mean-spirited, nasty epithet and not an insult to be washed out in blood (if false); where a woman in love has no regard for her reputation or honour, and where the only thing on anyone's mind—and the only indication of morality—is social class.

As the end of the film drew closer, I thought it could redeem itself. The policeman gives up conspiring with a traitor. The murderer kills himself. The Emperor restores justice. The illusionist, having given his beloved justice, retires as mysteriously as he came.

It would have been a perfectly satisfying ending. Just make the policeman's moral quandary a touch more wrenching, and presto—the movie is about whether he will do what he knows to be right. But no—they had to have a shocking twist. And it is revealed that the lady was alive all along, and she and the illusionist framed an innocent (if repulsive) man for her murder and caused his suicide.

This unravels the plot of the melodrama—it cannot survive the revelation that the villain isn't the murderer—the hero is. The moral of the story ends up being that if you are a Crown Prince and beat women, you are evil, but a commoner who frames an innocent man is OK. There's proletariat morality for ya.
The aweful thing is, the film seems to be completely unaware of it. When the detective is finally working out the he's been used to kill an innocent man and nearly lost his life over it... he's smiling and they're playing 'isn't this a wonderful thing!' music ... It's weird because that smile would have been so powerful if he was actually smiling for a good reason, it would have been like the smile in The Lives Of Others
comment #13417 Tomwithnonumbers 24th Mar 12
My mileage does vary. What you're talking about is closer to a Broken Aesop via in-cannon Alternater Character Interpretation than plot derailment. The plot remains intact, just different than what you had thought it was. Which is the bread and butter of the Twist Ending.

You say it overturns the melodrama, but actually all it does is flip it around. From the story of a plucky hero magician avenging his lady love against a serial woman abuser it becomes the tragic downfall of an innocent in this particular case guy at the hands of another not so nice guy (hard to say who's worse; you can't say for sure whether Sewell was guilty of previous crimes, nor whether Norton planned the suicide). Still melodramtic, in my opinion.

Perhaps it was easy for me to accept because I never liked the magician character. Not that I liked the prince, but I did find him more compelling in the usual way villains are . So when they flipped the roles, I was happy. It would break whatever moral the story had going, but that's a problem of the interpretation, right there. Surely the movie has moral elements, but is it a message movie, or is it a battle of wits won by the cleverer cad?
comment #13430 tublecane 24th Mar 12
"When the detective is finally working out the he's been used to kill an innocent man and nearly lost his life over it... he's smiling and they're playing 'isn't this a wonderful thing!' music ... It's weird because that smile would have been so powerful if he was actually smiling for a good reason, it would have been like the smile in The Lives Of Others"

I don't see why there needs be moral content to his smile. Not to say he was moved by injustice, nor that the character is without moral import. But he did make a career of doing dirty work for the empire, and never seemed to me totally repentent. More importantly, his character was developed above all else as being wowed by magic and obsessed by solving mysteries. Why can't his expression at the end be simple wonder at having been tricked and joy at figuring it out?
comment #13431 tublecane 24th Mar 12
"Not to say he was moved by injustice"

I meant, not to say he wasN'T moved by injustice
comment #13432 tublecane 24th Mar 12
I guess that must be how the film meant us to take it. That would make a lot more sense than them just being utterly mad.

Okay I guess that would even work as a kind've artistic statement, it's how (unfortunately :D) I'd choose to end all the films I made. If they wanted to make their film more accessible to people, they should probably establish that morality is going to be unimportant because they tended to do the opposite of that. Even with the policeman his second last scene as he actually make the confrontation is wrought with emotion and is all about him overcoming orders to do what is actually right. The guy even argues back in terms of right and wrong. So I guess if you're in the wrong state of mind when he starts smiling it's more natural to think 'wait isn't he just learning that he just poured out his soul and put his life on the line and had to witness the death of someone who'd been an ally to him is a lie' than the other one. But if I watch it again I will think of it as you think of it and I think I'll probably enjoy it more for that
comment #13436 Tomwithnonumbers 25th Mar 12
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