Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary By Director Neil Burger; Making Of ‘The Illusionist’; Easter Egg.
GIVEN its proximity to the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige three months ago, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist is faced with having to pull off a neat trick to entertain audiences with another tale of magic.
But the writer-director does so in spellbinding fashion, delivering a thoughtful turn-of-the-centry thriller that juggles forbidden love with political power games, intrigue and murder.
Edward Norton stars as enigmatic magician Eisenheim who is reunited with forbidden young love Duchess Sophie van Teschen (Jessica Biel) in 20th Century Vienna some years after they were forced to part company.
Faced with her imminent marriage to the tyrannical Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Eisenheim calls upon his celebrated powers as an illusionist to win back his love, all the while aware that his actions are being monitored by police chief inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a pragmatic adversary dedicated to serving his prince.
While comparisons with The Prestige are inevitable, The Illusionist is actually a much different movie – and no less enjoyable.
What begins as a love story quickly unfolds into a tense murder-mystery that has more than a couple of tricks up its sleeve.
Yet while audiences may be able to see the conclusion coming a long way in advance, there’s plenty of fun to be had in watching “the reveal” come together, not least because of the quality of the performances.
Norton is suitably cagey as the determined magician, butting heads impressively with Sewell’s hiss-worthy villain and keeping audiences enthralled with his tricks, while also convincing in the romantic interludes with Biel (lovely but arguably the film’s weakest link).
But it’s Giamatti who conjures another scene-stealing performance as the irrepresible inspector, whose battle of wits with Eisenheim provides the movie with many of its finest moments.
His reaction to the final twist captures perfectly what everyone has been thinking and goes some way to compensating for some of the more obvious elements of the reveal.
The 20th Century backdrop of Vienna also provides the film with a suitably sumptuous setting, and there’s some savvy political references to contemporary politics as well as the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire – both of which mean there’s always plenty going on in Burger’s clever screenplay.
So, make all thoughts of The Prestige disappear from your mind and allow The Illusionist to cast its own very different spell. It’s a supremely entertaining ride.
Running time: 1hr 50mins