What better time to look at one of the finest Edinburgh-set films than at the start of a new academic year. As new students arrive in the city, they bring with them dreams of the stories they hope to weave here. Edinburgh has been the setting for many great stories told on film, from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) to Hallam Foe (2007). The film that I feel best captures how I – born and bred just down the road in Musselburgh – feel about our capital city is The Illusionist.
The Illusionist is an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet; the follow-up to his masterful Belleville Rendez-vous (2003). It is based on an unproduced screenplay written by filmmaker and performer Jacques Tati in the 1950s and was met with mixed critical reception on release, as opinions on whether or not it was an effective, respectful adaptation of Tati’s work varied. Tati’s screenplay was reportedly intended as a letter to his estranged eldest daughter, and the melancholy of this situation hangs over the film. Chomet choses to set this story of the relationship between an illusionist and a young girl convinced that his magic is real in Scotland, as opposed to the Czechoslovakia of the original screenplay.
One of the stories that The Illusionist tells most effectively is that of Edinburgh in the late 1950s. Now, I can’t claim to know exactly what it was like, but something about the dreamy tone of the film aligns perfectly with the memories of the city that have been passed down to me by older family members. Many things about the city have stayed relatively constant over the years – the shots of Princes Street and Arthur’s Seat (and, interestingly, the H&T Pawnbrokers on Queen Street) will feel incredibly familiar to any Edinburgh resident. Yet, there are little features – the buses, the exterior of an old-school fish-and-chip shop, the interior of Jenners department store – that magic us back to 1959, to the world of The Illusionist.
Written for The Film Dispatch by Katherine Heller.
Based on a work at https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/thefilmdispatch/the-illusionist-2010/.