Anything starring Edward Norton I’ll watch and so should you. Why? Because he makes you fascinated about every character he plays. This is the case in The Illusionist, but it’s a shame he couldn’t save it from being overshadowed by a better 2006 film about magicians (The Prestige).
Not to worry though, it’s still very good, so time for a review!
Set in early 20th century Vienna, Norton plays Eisenheim, a mastermind magician with a talent for creating illusions. He is distant and mysterious, but impossible to ignore. Like a great magician should, he never reveals his tricks and there are hints that he might actually have special powers. He has been gifted since childhood, discovering the craft as a young boy and his backstory is shown through flashbacks, narrated by Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
Interestingly, the film plays out from Uhl’s point of view and he proves to be a conflicted man. He’s unsure of Esienheim’s intentions and the secret behind his illusions – perfectly serving as an audience surrogate. The film is lush like a proper period piece with majestic set designs and costumes. The plot moves steadily as Esienhiem takes to the stage at different theatres in Vienna and the tone of the film is always low-key, with a classiness to it.
Eventually, the drama kicks in when Eisenheim rediscovers his first love, Princess Sophie (Jessica Beil) when touring Vienna. Unfortunately, she is about to marry the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) in which for him will be a marriage solely to gain more power. Prince Leopold immediately takes a disliking to Eisenhiem, quick to label him a fraud because he can’t work out how his illusions are done. The movie is then, a race of sorts to find out Esienheim’s secret and Uhl is at the centre, determined to get to the bottom of it.
It’s both Eisenhiem and the story that keep you intrigued all the way through. Most of the other characters are less fleshed-out and more animated. It’s very noticeable how much the rest of the cast lack in gritty realism, in comparison to Norton’s Eisenhiem. Although I was impressed by Giamatti, who does his normal job of being a character that’s easy to get on board with but is still flawed.
Another thing I liked about the film is that the illusions are captivating and believable within the context of the story. The special effects aren’t flashy or overpowering and they have clearly aged well over time. By the way, I can’t believe this film is over ten years old!
It unfolds very simply and some viewers might get annoyed by its unhurried pace. I think it should have moved a lot quicker towards the climax, as it seems to get caught up in the finer details that derail it slightly. There is a twist – you might guess it like I did, but the fun comes from going along with Eisenhiem as he pulls off his tricks.
This is good stuff – a film that really hooked me. It has the right mix of tension, drama and mystery. The key thing to remember is that nothing in The Illusionist is what it seems. I highly recommend this one, it won’t let you down.
Director: Neil Burger
Writers: Neil Burger (screenplay) and Steven Millhauser (based on the short story by)
Stars: Edward Norton, Jessica Beil, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan
What are your thoughts on The Illusionist? Have your say in the comments!