Last year saw the release of two major motion pictures centred around stage magicians, The Prestige and The Illusionist. And while comparisons were perhaps inevitable, they are very different films. While The Prestige is a multi-layered, nearly epic film taking place over many years, at its heart The Illusionist is an old fashioned love story and mystery.
Set in Vienna around the turn of the 19th century, The Illusionist centres upon Eisenheim the Illusionist, a stage magician who fell in love with the Duchess Sophie von Teschen. After travelling the world and honing his skills as a stage magician, Eisenheim returns to Vienna where he and Sophie rekindle their relationship. Unfortunately, Sophie is engaged to the brutal and corrupt Crown Prince Leopold.
Within this setup, The Illusionist tells a tale that is both complex and satisfying. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, the screenplay unfolds like a good book, taking its time to allow both the plot and the characters to develop. Making the movie more convincing is a good cast. Edward Norton is convincing as Eisenheim, an illusionist whose dispassionate exterior hides the heart of a romantic, as is Paul Giamatti, whose Chief Inspector Uhl finds his ambitions in conflict with his honesty. Jessica Biel, best known for the show Seventh Heaven, proves to be a pleasant surprise. Finally she is able to show some talent in a role with some depth.
The Illusionist is a beautiful film to watch. Its cinematography is reminiscent of both old photographs and the early motion pictures of the 20th century. This gives the movie a moody, but at the same time soft atmosphere perfectly in keeping with fine de siecle Vienna. If there is one flaw with The Illusionist it is that some of the illusions may well have been impossible at the time. While I had no problem suspending my disbelief, others might not be able to.
In the end, it is hard to believe that this is only director Neil Burger's second film. He has made a better film than some more experienced directors. Ultimately, The Illusionist is quite simply an accomplished movie that succeeds in both entertaining and intriguing the viewer.