Writer & Director: Neil Burger (based on a short story by Steven Millhauser)
Cast: Edward Norton (Edward Abramovich/Eisenheim), Paul Giamatti (Chief Inspector Walter Uhl), Jessica Biel (Duchess Sophie von Teschen), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Josef Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka) & Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie)
A talented magician in Vienna uses his abilities to secure the love of a beautiful woman far above his social standing...
Okay, let's get it out of the way: The Illusionist isn't as good as The Prestige. There. Unfortunately, Neil Burger's tale of 19th-Century magician Edward Eisenheim has a number of parallels to Christopher Nolan's movie -- which was released around the same time, so you can't help compare the two. But, while it definitely sits in the shadow of The Prestige, it's not without its own charm...
Edward Norton stars as the illusionist Edward Abramovich (known as Eisenheim), earning his living in the theatres of Vienna on the cusp of the 20th-Century. In his youth, commoner Edward befriended Duchess Sophie von Teschen, a girl way above his social strata, who re-enters his life in adulthood (in the womanly shape of Jessica Biel) and rekindles his feelings. Unfortunately, she also brings a fresh complication; as she's expected to marry Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).
What follows is a standard love triangle, set against the world of stage illusions, filmed through a gauze, with a limp romance and moustache-twirling villainy. In particular, Sewell enjoys chewing scenery behind his facial fuzz, while Paul Giamatti outclasses everyone as Chief Inspector Uhl -- a man in awe of Eisenheim's talent, but loyal to Crown Prince Leopold. Giamatti brings a deftness of touch to his role as the conflicted policeman, proving to be the film's real magic touch.
Jessica Biel impresses in the brief moments she's allowed to speak instead of smoulders, with a decent performance that shows more ability than her sex-kitten pouting in crud like I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry would suggest.
As lead actor, Edward Norton is okay, but his accent is often distracting and his character remains mostly impenetrable. Like Eisenheim's act, you're never sure you're seeing any emotional truth, meaning some tear-jerking moments don't ring true. Still, while his character's personality is enigmatic, Norton's professional magic skills are neatly accomplished, and he has a nice intensity.
Neil Burger's script (based on the short story Eisenheim The Illusionist by Steven Millhauser) isn't too shabby, although the overall mystery and twist in the tail is unsurprising if you're prepared fro some narrative sleight-of-hand. So, while the ending isn't the mind-blowing twist it's meant to be -- becoming an amusing whimper, instead -- the journey itself glosses over that imperfection.
The Illusionist isn't a very expensive movie for a period drama, meaning it lacks scale and detail. Burger does a fine job with his $17 million, but a few scenes lack the majesty and texture a cash-injection would have provided. Dick Pope earned himself an Academy Award for the film's cinematography, but I have to say it left me underwhelmed.
Eisenheim's stage shows are also curiously small-sale, while Burger's decision to recreate genuine 19th-Century tricks with 21st-Century visual effects is annoying. It's difficult to be amazed by "real" magic tricks if they're sometimes achieved with CGI and editing. Indeed, a few tricks look utterly impossible in reality, like having a ghostly child walk through the auditorium.
The most memorable aspect to The Illusionist is the antagonism between Eisenheim and Leopold, with the latter written as an intelligent bore who delights in undermining Eisenheim's shows and exposing his act as trickery. Sewell is great during these scenes, becoming the royal equivalent of a child who spots invisible wire during a magician's routine and screams about it. A scene where Eisenheim holds Leopold's social embarrassment in the palm of his hand, with a sword trick in front of his friends, is wonderfully done.
Overall, The Illusionist is competent fun, but ultimately unmemorable and flawed in key areas. Only Giamatti gives a performance of any real depth, although Sewell has fun and Biel is surprisingly good. Norton drifts through the film, confusing enigmatic with boring, while the script isn't as taught required when its mouse-trap ending snaps shut.
Basically, once the credits materialize, you realize The Illusionist didn't do the trick.
Universal Pictures Budget: $17 million 110 minutes