In 19th century Vienna, the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is thrilling audiences so convincingly, some believe he is manipulating supernatural forces. The ambitious and dangerous Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is intent to expose Eisenheim as a fraud and gets his future wife Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel) to volunteer on stage for one of the more jaw dropping illusions. Eisenheim, son of a carpenter, recognises her as the girl he once loved as a boy - a relationship torn apart by their very differing social rankings - and when they renew their romance as adults, Prince Leopold orders Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to close Eisenheim's illusion act. But that's easier said than done and to pursue his heart, Eisenheim attempts the greatest illusion of his life.
Review by Louise Keller:
I was interested to see that illusionists Ricky Jay and Michael Weber are credited as magic consultants in this alluring film that teases us by bending the laws of logic and painting our perceptions with the stroke of a magical brush. Based on Steven Millhauser's short story, the film's splendid look is tinged with sepia, perfectly describing the 19th century timeframe with its browns and golden tones, but furthermore, it reflects warmth which is well suited to its central love theme. With Edward Norton at his striking best as The Illusionist, this is a stylish film filled with intrigue and presented with flair - like a good magic trick.
A man sits in a chair on an empty stage before the fire footlights. He is a study of concentration with beats of sweat on his brow and hands on his knees. The audience sits waiting in anticipation as he makes the impossible seem possible, with manifestations materialising. The illusions that Norton's Eisenheim purports to present, capture the imagination not only of his public, but of Paul Giamatti's Police Inspector, whose hobby of amateur magic makes him yearn to learn the secret behind the tricks. Jessica Biel shows she is much more than a pretty face as Eisenheim's true love Sophie, while Rufus Sewell revels in his role as the cruel, violent Crown Prince Leopold, who carries callousness like a sword.
Prague, doubling as Vienna, with its cobbled streets, ornate settings and distinctive central European buildings looks beautiful indeed, and the slightly clipped, neutral accents work to advantage. Philip Glass's intense music score is perfect, and Neil Burger's astute screenplay and direction uses subtlety to transport us into Eisenheim's world, while always revealing enough mystery to keep us guessing.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Built on a fabulously romantic notion and adapted from Steven Millhauser's 1972 novel (prior to his 1997 Pulitzer winning The Tale of An American Dreamer), The Illusionist begins with the eternally melancholy motif of childhood friends - would be lovers if a little older - from opposite sides of the track being separated by life's forces. It sets the mood of what follows, even though for a while we are distracted and entranced by the illusions that the adult Eisenheim (Edward Norton in top, elegantly understated form) performs on stage.
His nemesis, the brilliantly portrayed Chief Inspector Uhl by a quietly determined performance from Paul Giamattti, provides the dramatic tension, while Rufus Sewell's Crown Prince is the nicely unpredictable villain of the story. Jessica Biel is lovely and credible as the young woman who finds herself caught in a web of jealousy and romance amidst the power struggle for the Austrian Empire.
The film's tone is beautifully judged, and the film's technical achievements (including Philip Glass' inventive score) are superb. The gorgeous locations (Prague for old Vienna) and the mystifying illusions on the stage are a knockout. But here's the problem: these stage illusions are portrayed on the screen, where today's movie magic is capable of anything. This lessens their impact for us, since we assign these amazing illusions to digital prowess, not a magician's skill. This is the fatal flaw in adapting such a novel to the screen. When we read a literary sentence, we are imagining it; when we see it portrayed on screen, it is far too precisely real (even if it's made to seem like magic) and its intrinsic power is diffused.
It is also a little annoying when filmmakers manipulate the audience with fakery - as in the crucial murder scene, which takes place off screen - and the assumptions of which are never explained away in the denoument. It's a serious oversight.
Otherwise, it's an engaging and entertaining film, with some haunting characters and ideas - and a final revelation that satisfies.
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ILLUSIONIST, THE (M)
CAST: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Edward Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher,
PRODUCER: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Michael London, Cathy Schulman, Bob Yari
DIRECTOR: Neil Burger
SCRIPT: Neil Burger (short story by Steven Millhauser)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dick Pope
EDITOR: Naomi Geraghty
MUSIC: Philip Glass
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ondrej Nekvasil
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 1, 2007