Magic on the silver screen is a relative term. In many ways, the wonder inspired by a live magic show is lost on the big screen because editing, CGI, and other camera tricks can create seemingly impossible images. Now that we have King Kong wrestling T-Rexes and Johnny Depp wrestling with pirate ghosts and incoherent scripts, do we as an audience really buy into any kind of magic in films? Are we too attuned to the sleights of hand made by filmmakers to appreciate (or more importantly, believe in) magic? The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger (whose only other credit as writer-director is the obscure independent film Interview with the Assassin  ) attempts to tackle this issue head-on.
The film opens with a thwarted romance between two young teens: the aristocratic Sophie von Teschen (eventually played as an adult by Jessica Biel) and a poor boy who would later grow up to be Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton in grown-up form). Separated by Sophie’s relatives (who are grooming her to marry into the monarchy of the Austrian Empire in turn-of-the-century Vienna), the two meet onstage during one of Eisenheim’s performances and it quickly becomes apparent that the attraction between them has not been buried by time. Complicating matters is Sophie’s involvement with the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), a violent tyrant in line for the emperorship.
The film looks great, with many of the shots filmed with the center images in focus while the peripheral elements remain fuzzy. This combined with the sepia-like color scheme gives the entire movie the look of an old photograph. Writer-director Burger has a lot good ideas in his adaptation of a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser. The lush imagery, combined with Philip Glass’ opera-meets-melodrama score creates a terrific sense of time and place. Where Burger is less effective is in his development of plot points and characters. Certain scenes are rushed and feel almost perfunctory, even when they give away important details about the plot. In contrast, lesser scenes that build neither character or plot go on too long, contributing to a draggy midsection.
Compensating for that to a certain degree is a good cast of actors, not all of whom are used to the best of their abilities. Norton has the right intensity for his part, but he seems too contemporary and American for his role. Furthermore, having to recite Burger’s occasionally stiff dialogue does not help him. Of the entire cast, his accent is the shakiest, with his flat, American intonations slipping in throughout. Also, in an attempt to keep Eisenheim “mysterious,” we never learn much about him, so Norton is left to try to flesh out the character himself. Giamatti, whose naturally affected delivery I normally find engagingly blustery and B.S.-ish, goes a bit over the top here, with too many lines delivered with a theatrically arched brow. Sewell, who comes off as a kind of dark and raspy Jude Law, makes for a good bad guy.
Ultimately, the real surprise here is Biel. She projects a grounded maturity that helps flesh out her arm-candy role. She doesn’t have much to do, and her chemistry with Norton is only about 50% of what it should be, be she holds her own in a good cast. The key problem is that Burger makes their love story the crux of The Illusionist, yet devotes only a few minutes of screen time to developing it. All told, Biel and Norton only have three short scenes alone together.
The mystery also suffers from a certain sense of incompleteness. The illusions aren’t impressive because they are obviously faked with trick photography. Furthermore, a few “surprise” moments in the script are too easy to guess. The Illusionist is a film of many great parts that never congeal into a satisfying whole. Everyone involved delivers respectable, but unspectacular work. Ultimately, this film may function best as a means to whet audience’s appetites as they await the upcoming Christopher Nolan magic film, The Prestige. While tricks abound in The Illusionist, this somewhat stodgy film delivers precious little magic.
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