At the turn of the 20th Century, Vienna is left agape by the conjuring of illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton). Able to make an orange tree sprout in an instant before the very eyes of the public, it’s not long before he’s nabbing more attention than you can shake a stick at. But things take an unexpected turn when the crown prince shows a bit of interest in the magician’s work, leaving him constantly under surveillance — a situation that would be annoying at best, but when you’re trying to get it on with the future princess, you know you’re asking for trouble.
The Illusionist vs The Prestige — we all knew is would happen, especially as audiences are still reeling from Christopher Nolan’s sleight-of-hand saga of warring wizards. Comparisons are an inevitability, but in fairness The Illusionist is pretty different, revolving around a concept that no one has ever seen before in cinema — forbidden love. So we’ve got Norton in the lead, Paul Giamatti as the prince’s fuzz contact and it’s been shamelessly touted as “by the producers of Crash and Sideways”.
As with any trick, it’s all about what you don’t see. As well as they manage to leech off the great films of the last few years, there’s plenty of stuff the bigwigs wouldn’t want on the posters - I can’t honestly see “by the producers of Doom and xXx” going down quite as well, could you? Unfortunately, as well as Neil Burger manages stay within the lines of his arthouse-flick-by-numbers, it manages to come over as formulaic, leaving a fairly one dimensional experience and a wasted opportunity that will appeal to the masses by plodding along, jumping through each and every hoop, while others may be left feeling more than a little short changed.
As well as the cast do, and as stunning as the set design and cinematography is (bar some cartoony CGI), it remains a bit like watching David Blaine — all showmanship and no personality. On the plus side, it’s not exactly dull; Norton shows again why he deserves an Oscar in any role he commits himself to and you’ll be scratching your head at the arbitrary twists and turns. Whether or not that’s enough for you depends on how much you buy into the illusion.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey: You will probably guess the twist of The Illusionist partway through. You will feel vaguely disappointed. And then you will find yourself drawn back into the tale though the sheer beauty of the construction and the power of the two central performances. There are not many films that can overcome such a potentially devastating blow so big pats on the back where they’re due: writer/director Burger, and stars Norton and Giamatti.
This is an enormously enjoyable, high quality piece of work featuring two of Hollywood’s finest actors doing what they do best. Norton makes Eisenheim sympathetic when, let’s face it, he could have come across as eminently punchable as Blaine or Derren Brown. Giamatti also makes Uhl a rounded character, a man of honour who sometimes doesn’t enjoy what he’s been asked to do, but will do it as he can see the bigger picture. Again, he could have come across as unlikeable, a real little jobsworth of a man. But he doesn’t. He’s a human with believable motives and, perhaps, a keener intelligence than he sometimes lets others see. There’s little else I can say without giving away great rafts of the plot. Suffice to say then that this impressive and beautifully shot melodrama is a compelling experience.