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Nicholas Barber's the Watch List: Magicians


In Now You See Me, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco star as magicians who pull off bank heists with the same ease that they put on Las Vegas conjuring shows. It’s just one of the many recent films to feature stage magicians and, like two of the others, it co-stars Michael Caine.

The best known is Christopher Nolan’s moody steam-punk blockbuster, The Prestige (2006). Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play bitter rivals, and David Bowie cameos as Nikola Tesla. The Prestige overshadowed a similar 19th-century thriller, The Illusionist, which came out the following year, but in its smaller, more intimate way, the latter film has more genuine magic to offer. Edward Norton stars as a lovelorn Viennese magician. Paul Giamatti is the dogged police chief trying to spot what’s up his sleeve.

Just three years later, there was a film with the same title – 2010’s The Illusionist, a gorgeously hand-drawn, almost-silent cartoon directed by Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendezvous) and based on a previously unproduced script by Jacques Tati, who is revived in animated form as an ageing conjurer in 1950s’ Edinburgh.

Michael Caine was back again as another ageing conjurer in Is Anybody There? (2009), a witty and wistful comedy set in an old folks’ home in the 1980s. And in 2007, David Mitchell and Robert Webb played an estranged end-of-the-pier double act in Magicians. The screenplay, by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (Peep Show, The Thick of It), makes the mistake of keeping Mitchell and Webb apart for most of the film, but it’s funny enough. Still, it’s not as funny as Presto (2008), one of Pixar’s most hilarious ever short films. Now that’s magic.