Four years back, stage magicians Harry Kane (David Mitchell) and Karl Allen (Robert Webb) were unbeatable in their chosen field, and after one especially successful night Harry went to see the theatre manager where he was asked to stay on for another few weeks. He eagerly accepted, but when he went backstage to get Karl's consent, he found more than he bargained for as their assistant, Carol (Sarah Hadland) was getting intimate with his partner in their magic box. Making matters worse was the fact that Carol was Harry's wife, so when it next came time to perform the guillotine trick - oh dear.
That accident which opens the film is never really cleared up, so we don't know why Carol ended up with her head permanently separated from the rest of her body; it's doubtful that Harry messed up the trick on purpose, but we can understand why he wouldn't have been concentrating, subconsciously leading to the incident transpiring the way it did. Whatever, it was the cue for the creators of hit Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show to make their first movie together, and be welcomed by cinema audiences with a largely deafening silence. Seems that what they liked to see at home might not have been what they liked to see when they went out.
But if Magicians wound up a footnote in the careers of some very successful talents, was it really worth the lacklustre reception it won on initial release? Well, it's true it wasn't great, and partly seemed fuelled by its director Andrew O'Connor, no stranger to magic shows, and his desire to somehow expose the whole world of conjuring and illusion. This was odd in that he had brought one of the most successful "magic" acts, if you could call him that, to the attention of the public in Derren Brown, so you might have thought he'd be more sympathetic to the concerns of your average magician and far less scathing as he turns out to be here.
Certainly one of Brown's usual targets was well and truly taken down with a vengeance here, and that was the more disreputable side of illusions, the popular psychic shows that brought the afterlife to theatres across the land, not to mention television screens. By the end of this, you're in no doubt that O'Connor and his cohorts were of the belief that mediums were a bad thing, and exploiting the feelings of the vulnerable and not simply a harmless parlour trick on a grander scale. The Karl character is the one roped into posing as a medium through no real fault of his own, which gets him into all sorts of bother when people actually believe he has otherworldly powers, including a potential girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough).
Meanwhile Harry is living with the knowledge that everyone thinks he's some kind of criminal, in spite of being acquitted of any wrongdoing by an enquiry into the incident which killed his wife. He sees a chance to get back into the profession after a period of low paid jobs and unemployment when a magicians' contest is held on Jersey, with big prize money to boot, and gives Karl an awkward phone call to suggest that they reunite to win this thing. He agrees, but once they are there they fall out and end up competing separately, with Harry recruiting Linda (Jessica Hynes) who he met at work to be his assistant, reluctant to mention the whole head chopping off accident. You can see why this would appeal to the writers as a potential for comedy gold, but it doesn't quite play that way, with every character painted with the same "they're all completely rubbish" brush, which means there's a dejected air in spite of the sweet ending. Full marks to Darren Boyd as Karl's closeted manager, however, gaining some laughs where the others fail. Music by Paul Englishby.