The Illusionist


Directed by: Neil Burger
Written by:Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan
Released: March 1, 2007
Grade: B+

Eisenheim (Norton) is a talented magician working in Vienna in the early 20th century.  Word has spread of his masterful illusions and he performs in front of a packed theatre every evening.  No one can understand how he pulls off his tricks.  Some think that he has supernatural powers.  The mystery only adds to his popularity.

The show has attracted the attention of Vienna’s Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell).  Leopold is unhappy with Eisenheim’s “celebrity status” and intends to diminish his notoriety by exposing his secrets.  Helping in his task is Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), an amateur magician and close friend of Leopold.

Unexpectedly drawn into the saga is Leopold’s fiancé, Sophie (Biel).  Eisenheim and Sophie were once childhood sweethearts but they haven’t seen each other since they were kids.  Now, in Vienna, fate has reunited them.  Leopold is furious on learning of their romantic history wants Eisenheim arrested (for whatever reason Inspector Uhl can think of).

The Illusionist is a very intriguing movie.  The story had grabbed me within ten minutes and I was incredibly interested to know what would happen next.  Edward Norton (Primal Fear) and Paul Giamatti (Sideways) deliver two strong performances and the interaction between them is great.  Uhl subtly presses for information and Eisenheim subtly offers nothing.  Each is playing their own game.

The look of the film is also superb.  This is not a story that could be told in the modern era and so we are transported back to early 1900s thanks to impressive sets and costumes.  Also noticeable is an overall lack of colour.  It gives the film an old-style look and has earned cinematographer Dick Pope an Academy Award nomination.

After setting the stage so beautifully, the film flops in its final moments.  The explanation of the mysteries is too rushed and there were some other questions which weren’t satisfactorily answered.  I can’t say any more without giving too much away.  It’s a shame given that 95% of the film is very enjoyable.

It’s strange that we’ve had two films about magicians released in the past three months.  Last November, we were treated to The Prestige with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.  They share a few similarities but for the most part, they are very different films.  The Prestige gets my vote as the better but both films provide decent entertainment.