A Gallic Flavour
The Illusionist is a movie that is part animated love letter to the city of Edinburgh and part melancholic reflection on the death of music hall. The film tells the story of the eponymous illusionist, an old man who travels from his native Paris, to London and then Edinburgh, trying to make ends meet, even as preening rock and rollers make his act look increasingly archaic. Accompanying him on his travels in the historic city is a young girl from a remote Scottish village who believes his magic is real.
Their inability to communicate verbally casts the pair adrift in an almost entirely wordless world, occasionally punctuated by shouts and shrugs, where camaraderie and friendship is expressed through a magic trick or two. Based on an original script by French screen legend and physical comedian, Jacque Tati, the story has been given a new lease of life by idiosyncratic hand-drawn animation specialist Sylvain Chomet, best known for making Belleville Rendezvous.
This film is much more naturalistic, opposed to stylised, and the characters much less grotesque. The real star of the show is the (literally) watercolour rendering of Edinburgh, which anyone who has visited the city will recognise immediately, one stunning sequence pulling back to reveal the city in panarama, including the castle and the glass roof of Waverly station. Occasionally the film’s relentless melancholia does tip the balance unfavourable in the direction of tiresome, but only occasionally, and at 82 minutes long, it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Given the film’s music hall setting, there is plenty of room for quirky characters, all with a decidedly Gallic flavour: depressed clowns, tragic-comic ventriloquists and a rabbit-out-of-a-hat companion who provides many of the film’s best laughs. But, though there is some room for comedy, the film’s overriding tone is one of sadness, loss and nostalgia - sadness for the loss of innocence and nostalgia for a bygone era that maybe never was.