Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Movie Review: The Illusionist (2006)


A drama and romance set in the world of royalty, illusions and magic, The Illusionist looks grand but cannot conceal essential plot weaknesses.

The setting is Austria, late in the 19th century. As young adults Eduard and Sophie fell in love but were forcibly separated because he was the son of a lowly cabinet maker and she was from an upper class family. He grew up to be an illusionist using the name Eisenheim (Edward Norton) with a celebrated magic show in Vienna. One night Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends the performance along with his fiancĂ©e, the grown-up Sophie (Jessica Biel). Also in attendance is Leopold's faithful Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti).

The chance reunion reignites the passion between Eduard and Sophie, but Leopold is possessive and will not tolerate Sophie leaving him. Meanwhile Walter perceives Eisenheim as a threat to the Crown Prince's prospects, and starts a campaign of intimidation to run Eduard out of town. Eisenheim will have to decide if he has what it takes to tangle with the might of the royal family and fight for his love.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, The Illusionist offers a visually rich aesthetic featuring staid late 19th century Vienna surroundings, with frequent outdoor sojourns to breathe the distinguished  air of a handsomely recreated stately European city. The visual splendor is accompanied by an opulent Phillip Glass music score. Paul Giamatti is another plus, his shifty performance as a Chief Inspector who is also the son of a butcher filled with one-foot-in-each-camp nuance.

But much like a magic show with more sizzle than skill, there is limited substance beneath the magnanimous hand movements. Fundamentally the premise of The Illusionist is deeply troubling, Eisenheim's actions ending at a place where the line between aggressor and victim is severely blurred, with Burger appearing oblivious to the substantial betrayal of sympathy.

Worse still is an attempt at a plot twist that is exceptionally obvious. Kicking off about halfway through the 110 minutes of running time, Eisenheim unfurls a deception that is supposed to encompass the film's audience, but is telegraphed in capital letters. Rather than build towards a surprise, the second half of the film becomes a boring countdown until the glaring trap snaps around Uhl and Leopard.

In the meantime, Eisenheim sits on the stage creating incredible magic of the bring-back-the-dead variety, with no explanation given because all his tricks are CGI-created, and CGI would have been difficult to describe in a 19th century Vienna context. A dour Edward Norton performance does not help.

The Illusionist attempts to conceal suspect substance with stylish subterfuge, but stumbles off the stage.






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