Movie Magic and Illusion for Norton
2006 seemed a year where magic was a big selling point for movies, alongside the crowd pleasing "The Prestige" there was also Neil Burger's "The Illusionist" another movie laden with mystery and magic. But unlike "The Prestige" "The Illusionist" has a different feel about it, a little less commercial and a little more art house. Not that this makes it a bad movie, just one which will most likely appeal to a slightly different crowd than that which raved about "The Prestige".
In 1900 Vienna, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton - The Italian Job) is wowing crowds with some of the best magic they have ever witnessed. But when he becomes re-acquainted with his childhood love, Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel - Cellular) who is now betrothed to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), their furtive relationship angers the Prince and he orders Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man) to close down Eisenheim's show and to get rid of him. But Eisenheim has plans of his own and nothing will stop him.
The first thing you notice about "The Illusionist" is that visually it is very impressive, not in the sense it will wow you with huge special effect laden scenes but in the recreation of the period. From the opulence of Vienna at the turn of the century to the antler filled corridor of Crown Prince Leopold's shooting lodge it feels right and nothing feels out of place. But it is also in the way Neil Burger has chosen to shoot "The Illusionist" which adds to the authenticity of the entire movie. From start to finish "The Illusionist" has a sepia tone and techniques such as using iris fading to go from one scene to the next gives it that feel of a movie made in the period. Of course the image is a lot clearer but it all adds to creating an air of authenticity and atmosphere.
It's not all good though and although in an attempt to stay authentic several of the illusions which Eisenheim performs are from the period, the fact that many of these have been recreated using modern CGI techniques spoils things slightly. It adds a too polished sense too many of the tricks making them seem far better than they could have possibly been for the period. But this is a small gripe which when you become immersed in the storyline really doesn't matter that much, plus of course it makes the illusions look amazing.
The actual storyline is a little more traditional it lives in the world of the mysterious with a huge amount of romance. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser the underlying storyline at times feels a little predictable. After the initial build up which explains the childhood friendship between Eisenheim and Sophie you can pretty much guess where the movie will lead, it then becomes a case of how? The how is in fact quite good and combined with the numerous magical elements it makes for an intriguing movie and as you would expect it poses questions as to whether Eisenheim is in fact an illusionist or capable of summoning supernatural powers.
Typically with any movie which poses such questions there is the need for the climax, the big reveal which tries to explain everything you have seen. For me I was disappointed as although the big reveal does attempt to answer many questions, most of which you could have easily worked out yourself, it leaves several of the more important ones unanswered. Would it have spoiled the magic of the movie to explain those missing links, more than likely but in not doing so left too much for me to except without a solid answer.
One of the strangest things about "The Illusionist" is that although the three big name stars put in credible performances, the best one comes from someone who you would not actually pick for their role. Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell are all very effective in their various roles. Norton does have a sense of mystery about him as Eisenheim and looks very comfortable in doing many of the tricks. Whilst Rufus Sewell is indeed very good at playing the dangerous Crown Prince Leopold, a role which he seems very adept at playing. Plus you have Paul Giamatti who honestly creates one of the more memorable characters in that of Inspector Uhl a man stuck in the middle of being over awed by Eisenheim's trickery yet under the orders of Crown Prince Leopold. It's a role you can rely on Giamatti to make interesting when it could have just fallen flat into a 2 dimensional character.
But the real surprise performance comes from Jessica Biel as Sophie, someone who does not have the track record in movies for playing such refined and elegant characters. But she does a brilliant job making the character of Sophie not only real but she equally holds her own against a more established and awarded cast. Plus for those sharp eyed "Eastenders" fans you will be able to spot Jake Wood, better known as Max Branning, in a supporting performance as Jurka.
What this all boils down to is that despite a couple of issues "The Illusionist" is a very good movie which will draw you in as the story slowly unfolds. Yes it is a little predictable and for those who like pacey action packed movies it may not have enough to hold your attention. But for those who like more subtle dramas, which are in no rush to hit you with big scenes and are credible in recreating the period then this, will most likely appeal. Comparisons with "The Prestige" would be unfair as despite sharing a common theme of magic they are very different movies targeting slightly different audiences.