The Illusionist is Neil Burgers second film and is loosely based on Steven Millhausers short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”.
The film stars Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell and is set in, what was at the time, Austria-Hungary.
Before viewing this film I was expecting to be comparing it to Christopher Nolans “The Prestige” which was released just under two months later. However, the only similarities between the two are that they are both period dramas set around the turn of the 20th century and the plot revolves around magic.
The story begins with the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) being arrested in a theatre by Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) during what seems to be a display of necromancy during a magic show. We are then shown the events leading up to the moment of Eisenheims arrest. These events begin when Eisenheim is a teenager (played by Aaron Johnson). He meets and falls in love with Sophie the Duchess (played by Eleanor Tomlinson). Sophies parents have hired Eisenheims father as a cabinetmaker. However because of the difference in social class Sophie and Eisenheim are forbidden to see each other. The two have a secret meeting and decide that they will flee to China but the police soon find them and although Eisenheim tries to make himself and Sophie disappear they are caught and separated. Eisenheim who is obsessed with magic after meeting a travelling magician leaves to travel the world to perfect his magic. He returns home 15 years later and is a successful illusionist. At one of his performances he asks for a volunteer and Sophie (now Jessica Biel) is offered up by her fiancé the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell). The Crown Prince has a history of violence towards women and also plans to overthrow his father, the Emperor of Austria, which, if he were to marry Sophie, would also gain control of the Hungarian half of the Empire. Eisenheim and Sophie soon begin a romantic relationship and realise they are still in love with each other. Inspector Uhl, who is an aid to the Crown Prince, is very eager to find out how Eisenheim performs his magic and he one day sees Eisenheim and Sophie together and brings this news to the Crown Princes attention. Sophie decides to leave the Crown Prince for Eisenheim and they both try to conceive a plan for Sophie to get away safely. We later end up back at the start of the movie where Eisenheim is being arrested but under different circumstances from what was perceived in the opening sequence.
The ending of the movie is satisfactory if you don’t ask too many questions as although some of these questions are answered some are left open for the viewer to decide, for example we have to decide for ourselves just how powerful a magician Eisenheim is.
The main cast in this film includes Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell. Sewell does a good job exerting the power and arrogance of his character. One of the key scenes in this film for me is when Nortons character makes Sewells sword magically stick to the floor and explains the story of Excalibur and the sword in the stone. When Sewells character is asked to try and remove the sword from the ground the contact through the eyes of Sewell and Norton say more than the dialogue could.
Edward Norton has acted better in previous roles but still manages to bring some emotion to this role. It seems his expressions are clearer through his actions than the dialogue. Jessica Biel gets less screen time throughout the movie as I would have expected. She does well in this film from what we get to see of her but she cant show her true capabilities in this limited role.
The real star of the show here is Paul Giamatti as the determined and corrupt inspector Uhl. He plays this character very well and you can get a good feel on how is character is progressing. A turning point for him is when he has to confront the Crown Prince with some accusations. Overall the acting is good but particularly in the second half.
Neil Burger who wrote and directed this film has done well considering this is only his second feature after the 2002 Drama “Interview with the Assassin”.
The scenes that stood out for me were Eisenheims magic performances on stage in the theatre. Burger manages to take these big theatres and makes them seem quite dark and almost intimate.
Other stand out scenes include several shots of Giamatti walking down a corridor where the walls are covered with antlers and deer heads. Although the corridor is very confined, Neil Burger manages to direct Giamatti in a way that is character over powers all the artefacts on the wall.
Another excellent scene is when Giamattis character has to deliver some bad news to the Crown Prince who is out shooting at the time. Burger uses a very wide shot to show the large tree lined background. The location is what really made this scene work.
Although this film is set in Vienna it was mostly filmed in the Czech Republic. The street scenes were convincing enough to pass as early 20th century Vienna thanks to the set designer (Petra Habova) and the costume design headed by Ngila Dickson was also very good and in fitting with the time period.
Overall I think this film is enchanting and well paced. Every scene feels necessary and the running time of 110 minutes seemed to pass rather quick. I believe a lot has been achieved in this film considering its relatively small budget including the special effects used to create the magic shows.
The film is based on the common premise of a poor working boy being in love with the daughter of richer, more powerful family. Of course when you add the element of magic and illusion you get something quite different from your standard romance or drama film. I would recommend this movie to people looking for a period drama or mystery with a difference or a romance with a new edge.
If the actors had the chance to show their skills through better dialogue and if some more questions were answered then The Illusionist would deserve 7 out of 8 but due to these slight problems I award The Illusionist 6 out of 8.