Film review by: Witney Seibold
“The Illusionist” gives a modern, almost realist sensibility to Shakespearean plot elements. The result is a bit slow, a bit turgid, but atmospheric, well-acted, and even rather entertaining. It’s not as thrilling as “The Prestige,” released later in the year, but it does seem to jettison some of that film’s comicbook sensibility in favor of character showcasing.
It’s about a young couple, early 1900s Vienna. He an amateur magician, she a betrothed society dame. The Capulets and Mont- I mean… their respective families cannot keep them apart, and they are eventually separated. She is cloistered away, he takes to the road with his magic act. Years pass. He has changed his named to Eisenheim, and is now played by Edward Norton. She is still named Sophie, and has grown into Jessica Biel. Sphie is married to the blowhard Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, who can play a blowhard prince better than anyone). Eisenheim is such a talented magician now that the local government is investigating whether or not he is actually casting spells or performing tricks. The investigator is played by Paul Giamatti. The film becomes about Eisenheim’s fight to win Sophie’s love again, win her away from her cloistered first-half-of-a-Jane-Austen-novel marriage to Leopold, and winning his cases against the nosey inspector without actually reveling his secrets.
It is a mature film, and less about the tricks and illusions, or even the big twist at the end, than about the relationships between the characters. It’s less flash and more flesh, if you will. It’s a good film, and worth seeing for the performances (Norton and Giamatti can’t help but give their all), and for the lush and gorgeous warm-room photography by Dick Pope, who shot many of Mike Leigh’s features. Jessica Biel comes across at times like a Minnesotan playing an English society dame (even though she’s German), but is surprisingly able to hold her own for much of the film.
Writer/director Neil Burger may have a great film in him. “The Illusionist” is good, but, at the end of the day, is merely an impressive trifle. Perhaps Burger’s next film…