The Illusionist Review

Edward Norton plays a mysterious stage magician who may have supernatural powers in this period thriller. Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell also star. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

His name is Eisenheim (Edward Norton). He’s a stage illusionist. In Vienna, at the end of the nineteenth century, he’s something of a cause célèbre. His illusions aren’t the cheap parlour tricks other magicians perform. They’re impressive, artistic even and sometimes they seem uncomfortably real. They enthrall audiences and defy easy explanation.

It isn’t long before Eisenheim’s reputation has attracted the attention of Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the vain and ambitious Crown Prince of Austria. He attends a performance, accompanied by his beautiful fiancée, Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel). When Eisenheim calls for a volunteer to assist him, Leopold sends her to the stage.

The illusionist is briefly startled – he knows this woman. They were childhood sweethearts, separated by the rigid class divisions of the time. After the show, they tentatively renew their friendship. However, the Duchess is under constant surveillance and soon Eisenheim is paid a visit by Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a local policeman in the Crown Prince’s pocket. The Inspector warns him not to cross men of power like Leopold. “There is no trick they haven’t seen”, he intones.

But is that true? Eisenheim’s shows begin to include elements of the supernatural and soon the question is being asked: is he simply a brilliant illusionist or is he something more? Eisenheim claims he spent years travelling the world, learning his trade. Was he acquiring the tricks of the world’s great magicians or the secrets of the black arts?

The second film in a few months to take nineteenth century stage magic as its subject, The Illusionist is more about the story and less about the puzzle than its rival, The Prestige. Christopher Nolan’s film is a Victorian Usual Suspects – the whole film is a sleight of hand designed to delight you with its cleverness. It does. It’s nicely done and great fun to watch.

The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger from a story by Steven Millhauser, is a drama that happens to have a twist. Like The Sixth Sense, it would work without it and if you can guess it, the movie isn’t spoiled. The twist isn’t gratuitous either: it fits in with the film’s theme, it’s emotionally satisfying and you can’t deny the clues are right there before your eyes.

This is entertainment with brains and class. It’s an old-fashioned film in the best sense – written with an intelligence and nuance rarely seen nowadays in mainstream cinema. It’s well directed in a classical style, beautiful to look at and superbly acted.

Edward Norton is properly intense and enigmatic as Eisenheim. Due to the nature of the film, the character must remain a mystery until the very end but within that constraint, Norton is excellent. He certainly makes you understand why Vienna is so fascinated by him.

Paul Giamatti is absolutely remarkable, adding Inspector Uhl to his growing list of great performances. He does justice to a wonderfully complex character – a corrupt man who struggles with his underlying good nature – and he gives the audience someone with whom to identify.

None of the four stars lets the side down. Rufus Sewell has played a lot of bastards in a lot of period dramas but he certainly doesn’t phone this one in. He makes Leopold a very interesting bastard – the character shows genuine insight into the mindsets of arrogant political leaders who believe they know better than everyone else.

Jessica Biel meanwhile lets us see why men would go to such lengths over Sophie. Along with Giamatti, she brings great warmth and humanity to the film and prevents it from ever seeming like just an exercise in clever plotting.

How The Illusionist compares to The Prestige will come down to personal tastes in cinema. I think younger cinemagoers will probably find Nolan’s film more impressive but older viewers will appreciate The Illusionist more. Sorry to sit on the fence but I enjoyed both movies immensely. It’s a shame double bills are no longer around because it’s hard to imagine a more ideal pairing.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Mar 05, 2007

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