The Last Illusion

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Last Illusion
"Gorgeously shot, from from the candlelit parlours of the nouveau riche to the wet streets of a man on his differing uppers."

Arseny Vilsky is a magician, in the black and white tradition. Tophat and tailcoat, handkerchiefs to wands, it gives nothing away to mention these tricks as I too serve as your master of ceremonies. This is an introduction to a particular time and place, a stage in a career.

Gorgeously shot, from from the candlelit parlours of the nouveau riche to the wet streets of a man on his differing uppers. The grey skies of unforgiving Russia, the grey walls around a meal of a kopek bun and a cup of tea without sugar. It is not magic, we are told, magic is not allowed within the Orthodox faith, the police consider it illegal. There is a declaration that it will all be done with sleight of hand, and so it is.

The attic theatre with the candelabras, the rude mechanicals in the back row lit like a Rembrandt. Vladimir Feklenko's film is darkly poetic, painterly in its aspect. He directs, writes, or rather adapts. It is based on the story Sleight Of Hand by NA Teffi. She wrote feuilleton and other pieces for turn-of-the-century magazines like the Satiricon, an early supporter of the Bolsheviks she fell out with them in the nineteen-teens. Literary adaptations can be difficult, for every one that soars like Martin Eden there are others that cannot escape the Twilight of their dead tree past. This is helped by remaining a period piece, doubly of its era. Where others seek to update they can erode that which makes them special, but our illusionists new trick astonishes.

Pyotr Dukhovskoy's cinematography is a delight. As I think on it I am minded of the wood panelled rooms of the Wallace collection, their Holbein's on the wall. Were I not so immediately drawn to that comparison I could doubtless find echoes of Russian painters there too, even the maudlin bombast of State Funeral. Olga Tsyba's production design manages to, in a fraction of the budget, create the same sense of character and place as did Nolan's teams for The Prestige.

The music by Anton Silaev, mournful trumpet and all, with a piano theme by Alexander Motovilov helps transport us into this period piece, Romantic in the proper tradition, a moment of beauty (among moments of beauty) to consider at leisure. Stanislav Borodkin's magician is dignified and drawn, the faded grandeur of ways left behind. Within his performance, that of the child and those more cynical watching, is a stateliness, a steadiness, one which makes its collapse and his barely retained composure all the more affecting.

When he is reduced in means that he cannot produce a rouble from behind an ear, when the angles are wrong, when the crowd have started to turn - that is when the magic happens. Within a handful of scenes, drawing room, alleyway, garret and loft, The Last Illusion lays out its cards, shows nothing up its tattered sleeves. With deft direction and truly impressive lighting it carries us along to the point where we believe we know what is going on, before it produces something unmatched.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2021
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Russia. 1910. A once-famous magician has been reduced to a wandering circus artist. He prepares himself for his final performance…

Director: Vladimir Feklenko

Writer: Vladimir Feklenko

Year: 2020

Runtime: 16 minutes

Country: Russia

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