The Illusionist (PG)

Ryan Gilbey admires a fitting animated tribute to Edinburgh.

In the space of a few years, Edinburgh has been the recipient of two cinematic love letters not unlike those composed by Woody Allen for New York. In 2007, its streets and rooftops became a playground for the young hero of David Mackenzie's Hallam Foe. And in The Illusionist, the new animated picture by Sylvain Chomet, the city is a stage on which an almost imperceptible struggle plays out between innocence and experience, reality and enchantment. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is Edinburgh's own Manhattan.

Chomet adapted his script from an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati that was set largely in Prague. Now, it is Edinburgh's maze of malt-smelling streets that becomes home to the wind-beaten magician Tatischeff (christened in honour of Tati's full name and voiced by Jean-Claude Donda - although dialogue is scarce). He arrives in 1959 via Paris, where he has become passé, and London, which has no use for tricks with coloured handkerchiefs when rock'n'roll combos are working a more primal kind of magic on their audiences.

Tatischeff heads for a booking on an island off the west coast of Scotland, and when he moves on to Edinburgh, one of the young islanders, Alice (Eilidh Rankin), tags along and shares digs with him at a tumbledown hotel where the clientele includes a depressed clown and a trio of acrobats. Alice's faith in Tatischeff revives him, but her dependence on his wee miracles also becomes problematic. The woman believes his conjuring feats are real, and it's no easy matter safeguarding the innocence of this doting friend who can't grasp that survival depends on money, rather than magic.

Here the film hits a snag. Either you will be enchanted by Alice, and the idea of Tatischeff struggling to maintain the illusion that the gifts he brings her are summoned miraculously like so many rabbits from a hat. Or you will ask yourself: how does a woman, even one raised on a remote island, get to her late teens without comprehending how life works? There are sheltered upbringings and then there is arrested development. In common with Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, which shied away from the matter of why Bess (Emily Watson) was always gawping at her surroundings, The Illusionist cannot bring itself to address the questions it raises about Alice's naivety.

In other respects, its ellipses and general understatement can only be a refreshing counterpoint to summer blockbuster bombast. Tatischeff and the film itself pay unambiguous homage to their original creator; the magician, with his knack of appearing to be standing upright and stooping simultaneously, is the spit of Tati. And there is a flash of goosebump-inducing alchemy when he enters a cinema that is showing Mon Oncle. Up there on the screen is his live-action double, peering out into the animated world of a film he gave birth to, but never lived to see.

Doffing caps is only part of the picture's reason for being. Just as Tatischeff is becoming an anachronism, so, too, is Chomet's chosen medium - 2D animation, rendered here with an inky roughness that looks more scratched-out than drawn, in subtle colours that seem soaked-in or baked-on. Chomet made an excellent case for the vitality of 2D with his first film, Belleville Rendezvous, but the correspondence in The Illusionist between form and content makes his argument that bit more poignant.

While the film incorporates three-dimensional backgrounds, there are images here which, in their unforced eloquence, expose the corporate slickness of most 3D and computer animation. Sometimes it's merely a matter of infinitesimal changes in light - the hot, grey glow inside a fogged-up taxi cab, or the flapping of pages in a discarded book, reproduced as a restless shadow-bird on the wall.

The film's essence is bound up in Chomet's decision to send Tatischeff to Edinburgh, a place the director imagines as one vast architectural conjuring trick. Its cobblestone streets and alleyways are as slant as any funhouse floor, and its elevated roads seem suspended like high-wires in the misty distance. Whether you have yet to fall in love with the city, or you're waiting to be convinced of the value of 2D animation, The Illusionist will seal the deal.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.