“Where the dark arts still hold sway”
There is a lot of buzz going around movie circles about this being the year of magic. With Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige garnering much anticipation, the lesser-known The Illusionist, by director Neil Burger, hits screens first. Trailers show that while it appears to be the more accurate movie in terms of period and realism, it doesn’t seem to have the flash or grave consequence as Nolan’s film. While The Prestige is a movie about rivalry and mysticism, The Illusionist is a love story shrouded in trickery and class distinction. We are treated with realistic performances from all the principles, gorgeous cinematography and sleight of hand illusions, yet ultimately are shown a slight story that plods along while entertaining. It is a good film, well worth seeing, yet I have to say it just makes my interest in Nolan’s new movie heighten.
Edward Norton is a son of a carpenter who worked on the house of a dignitary. This nobleman had a daughter, Sophie, who became smitten with Norton’s character. The two want to run away, but their plans are thwarted, as usual in these types of plotlines, by the class disparity; no peasant can be with a noblewoman. We flash forward 15 or so years to Norton’s return from exile as Eisenheim the Illusionist in Vienna. His tricks are top-notch and garner the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl, played nicely by Paul Giamatti as a peasant trying to make a name for himself, yet who still knows his role in society. He tells the Prince who comes to see it for himself. Of course the Prince’s girlfriend is Sophie, all grown up, and she rediscovers the love that was taken from her once she sees her childhood friend on stage. The film then plays out to show the struggles between the prince and the pauper to see the strength of true love.
Norton and Giamatti are both stalwarts of their craft and here is no exception. I think the two actors to mention are Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell. Biel radiates beauty, yet hasn’t really shown anything to warrant top-bill status as far as ability over stardom. As Sophie, she has an innocence and lack of class status that really proves her love for Norton. This isn’t your normal wealthy woman who plays with those under her, she truly loves Eisenheim and has during all the years she lost living without him by her side. I was pleasantly surprised by her understated performance, she did what was needed, and maybe took a step in the right direction from fare like her role in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Sewell on the other hand, shows once more that he is vastly underrated. He plays villainous slime to perfection. The cold stare and palpable malice on his face at times creates true fear. Hopefully one day he will get a chance to shine like he did as the lead in the great Dark City.
The real beauty of small films like this is the ensemble casts and overall craftsmanship. Craft almost supercedes acting here, as good as that is itself. Visually, the opening titles are the best I can remember of those seen this year. The focus changing of the old silent film script font is a sight that really immerses the audience into the story. They create a mindframe that we are being transported into a time that has past, a time of real artistry and imagination. Even the early flashback is vignetted in a feathered-edge oval. The magic tricks also are shown realistically with few moments of fake cgi to take you out of the reality. I’m sure the consulting by magician Ricky Jay, a David Mamet stalwart and former castmember of “Deadwood”, has something to lend to this. It’s just a shame that he couldn’t crack the cast-list here to as he has with The Prestige.
It’s too bad that with all of these great things, The Illusionist just didn’t have it all. The story is at its core a simple love triangle with magic thrown in. Its almost two hour length seems a bit bloated during the middle portion and unfortunately brings the intrigue down with it. The ending is also obvious, yet because it is pushed so far back from view you almost second-guess the shear necessity of it until it finally happens. Although you know it’s coming a mile away, the filmmakers so wanted it to surprise the audience that they wait until the last possible moment to spring it on you. Sadly, this tactic doesn’t promote a sense of awe, but instead just makes it feel tacked on as though they couldn’t find a way to seamlessly have it happen, so they just unraveled it all at once. It just left me with an empty feeling on an otherwise technically beautiful film.
The Illusionist 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
 Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton in The Illusionist – 2006.
 Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold in The Illusionist – 2006