Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, a Pulitzer winner given to tidy exposition and nostalgic settings, The Illusionist concerns a stage magician who was separated from the love of his love due to his peasant roots and her aristocratic family, only to meet her years later on stage, when she is betrothed to a villainous crown prince. The magician, Eisenheim, is played stiffly by Edward Norton, without a shred of humor or self-awareness. Somewhat in keeping with his performance is that by Jessica Biel as his beloved, Sophie von Teschen -- whose beauty helps brighten these lamp-lit rooms, but who is never close to believable as a Viennese noblewoman. Rather more in keeping with the spirit of the rather melodramatic story is Rufus Sewell, as the evil Crown Prince Leopold, who swans through the film with cigarette holder perched lightly in one hand, his face a deliciously, maliciously bored mask.
Sewell and Giamatti are about the only things livening up the attempt by director/writer Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin) to spread Millhauser's brief fiction over the length of a feature. A lengthy prelude following Eisenheim and Sophie's young love is played out much longer than necessary, while Eisenheim's performances are padded beyond any possible audience interest. Every now and again, for the sake of drama, Leopold snarls at Giamatti's Chief Inspector Uhl to shut down this Eisenheim, who in his performances has gone out of his way to gall the prince, partially as a way of wooing Sophie. Everything in the film is handsomely mounted, with its sepia-tinted cinematography and unusually dramatic, strings-laden score by Philip Glass, but by the time it comes to the over-plotted and un-shocking bag-of-tricks conclusion, Burger's fussy look has started to feel more confining than beautiful.
For a time, The Illusionist is indeed able to conjure up some magic, the illusion of being an original and captivating film. Eisenheim has a nice scene when, at the start of a performance, the curtains draw back and he walks out, pulling his gloves off and abruptly throwing them into the audience, only to have them turn into black birds and flutter away. And Giamatti can at least be happy to have acquitted himself well in a film that, if anyone sees it, will hopefully result in him being offered fewer roles as the loveable loser. But as such things go, once The Illusionist's great reveal is uncovered, what comes then is not awe and astonishment so much as disappointment, tinged with boredom.
DVD extras include a commentary track and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Don't strangle her. She's purty.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st September 2006
Box Office USA: $39.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $86.9M
Distributed by: Yari Film Group
Production compaines: Yari Film Group
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Fresh: 138 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton as Eisenheim, Jessica Biel as Sophie, Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl, Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold, Eddie Marsan as Josef Fischer (as Edward Marsan), Jake Wood as Jurka, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Young Eisenheim, Eleanor Tomlinson as Young Sophie, Karl Johnson as Doctor / Old Man, Vincent Franklin as Loschek, Nicholas Blane as Herr Doebler, Philip McGough as Dr. Hofzinser, Erich Redman as Count Rainer, Michael Carter as Von Thurnburg
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