The Illusionist

Slight of hand, slim of substance, but diverting nonetheless.

Released in 2006, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 20 Aug 2007 by Craig Eastman
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It?s fairly typical of Hollywood studios to not be able to see past the end of their noses, hence when one greenlights a project that could be considered a little different to the norm it is often followed by a similarly themed (and usually inferior) commission from a rival studio. Think Armageddon and Deep Impact or Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Actually don?t think about those films. I?m sorry I even mentioned it now. My point was that last year?s excellent The Prestige, a pleasantly out-of-place effort in the cinematic idiom that centred around turn of the century magic acts and the fierce rivalry between two former stage companions is followed here by The Illusionist: a tale of turn of the century magic acts and the fierce rivalry between one performer and a murderous Austrian Crown Prince.

Alright, so the antagonists may differ slightly in their form, but by and large we?re dealing with two movies of a remarkably similar nature having sprung up, appropriately enough, out of thin air, and in these circumstances I will always be prone to scepticism toward the perceived lesser effort of the two. Nonetheless I found myself intrigued by the notion of The Illusionist as on paper it has a lot more credibility than your average knock-off. Consider a lead cast comprising Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell (apologies to Jessica Biel: she?s just not up to the billing), and you can see why my interest might be a little stirred.

The story goes that Eisenheim, the son of a humble carpenter, becomes obsessed with magic after a chance meeting with a wandering illusionist. He soon falls in love with Sophie, a well-to-do young girl who is enchanted by his gift for trickery, but in the time honoured tradition of things the two are separated by Sophie?s family and their paths seem destined never to cross again. Fast forward a couple of decades to Vienna circa 1900 and Eisenheim (Norton) is a performer of fantastic reputation who is coining it in with his bravura displays of spectacular and often seemingly paranormal feats. His act comes to the attention of Crown Prince Leopold, a somewhat self-absorbed sceptic of such things who seems intent on uncovering Eisenheim?s methods, and whose bride to be turns out to be no less than Sophie (Biel).

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Now, you needn?t be a magician yourself to guess where it?s all heading, as in keeping with human nature Eisenheim and Sophie covertly rekindle their romance, with all the tragic inevitability you might expect following the revelation that Leopold has a history of snuffing out his former lovers for the slightest of indiscretions. The Prince meanwhile enlists his chief of police Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) as leverage in his attempt to ruin the magician after a series of embarrassing onstage put-downs leave him a little flustered in front of his social circle, resorting to ever more dastardly means as Eisenheim continues to skilfully evade claims of fraudulent practice.

The human element is all very familiar, drawing from any number of emotional dramas, but writer director Neil Burger (mmmmm, burger?) has clearly decided there was a gap in the market for off-the-peg plotting to be wrapped up in the swanky clothing of crowd pleasing magic acts. Working from a short story by Steven Millhauser, Burger (mmmmm, burger?) clearly has a decent ear for dialogue, even if the same cannot be said for his efforts at character development. That said it?s always been my opinion that shallow characterisation can be greatly compensated for if you have a talented enough cast who aren?t being hamstrung by corny lines, and this is exactly the case here.

Norton?s Eisenstein is actually perhaps the shallowest character here, with little heed paid toward an audience?s desire for a protagonist they can empathise with. Nevertheless the actor (whom I hold in high regard anyway) proves something of the illusionist himself, conjouring more sympathy for Eisenstein than he?s technically due thanks to the limitation?s of Burger?s written word. Giamatti, as always, is as excellent as an exceptionally excellent thing in an annual gathering of excellent things, though similarly he too is somewhat confined by the script, albeit to a lesser extent than Norton in what is after all a supporting role. Sewell gets to mooch about in that thoroughly enjoyable and loathing way at which he is so adept, and in many ways gives the most watchable performance, even if that means he?s being a complete bastard. Fortunately he resists the temptation for pantomime villainy in favour of a far quieter form of evil which suits the tome of the film exceptionally well, and as a spoilt, envious and bitter powermonger he fills the role in an extremely enjoyable way. Biel is? well, Biel is pretty. Let?s just leave it at that.

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Nicely contrasting the cold, stark atmosphere of Christopher Nolan?s The Prestige, The Illusionist is shot through with some rather pleasant cinematography that fills the screen with lush, warm tones that are appreciably more crowd pleasing but occasionally verge on the Vaseline-lensed. Indeed the whole tone of the film differs from that movie in that here, rather than the madness of obsession the driving force behind Eisenstein?s actions is love. Somewhat unfortunately the chemistry between Norton and Beil is more first year science class than Ig Nobel, but I guess you pays your money and takes your chances with these things.

It?s fair to say I rather enjoyed The Illusionist for what it is, but anyone looking for a Nolan beater is highly likely to be disappointed. Where The Prestige rippled with intense performance, emotional drama and the threat of pure insanity, The Illusionist potters along amiably with less lofty goals. The two do share a common bond in somewhat unconvincing lump sum exposition which is dropped into the final reels of both, but at least throughout The Prestige there was an air of the believable about the magic, whereas here no explanation is given for how Eisenstein conjours up full-bodied apparitions that wander through crowds making eye contact with individuals and up stairs. Call me cynical, but I?ll only suspend my disbelief for so long, and if it takes a hefty dose of 21st century CG to perform for the big screen I dount it could be created so perfectly in nineteen hundred and something with some water vapour and a projector as is offered up as an explanation here.

Ultimately The Illusionist is two hours of entertainment that zips by at a suitable pace and is unlikely to stay with you for very long. Like Eisenstein himself the movie puts on a good show but has suspiciously little up it?s sleeves. No great mystery here; just a solid rainy afternoon?s entertainment.

I bequeath upon The Illusionist 3 out of 5 Disko Units.

Neil Burger
Cast list:
Edward Norton (Eisenstein)
Paul Giamatti (Inspector Uhl)
Jessica Biel (Sophie)
Rufus Sewell (Crown prince Leopold)