The Illusionist
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Neil Burger
with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson, Karl Johnson, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Blane
release US 18.Aug.06, UK 9.Mar.07
06/US Yari 1h40

What's up my sleeve? Biel and Norton

giamatti sewell marsan

Click here to buy posters! Support Shadows: Buy a Poster

The Illusionist Elaborate set design and strong plot twists do not a movie make. Although they do make a lot of money at the box office. This film looks so good, and has such a strong cast, that some viewers won't notice how corny the script is.

Eisenheim (Norton) is a master magician in 1900s Vienna with a deeply intriguing stage act and a mysterious past. No one knows he's actually the working class boy who had a childhood romance with Duchess Sophie (Biel). She doesn't even recognise him, although she's about to. Alas, she's now betrothed to the Crown Prince (Sewell), who really doesn't like all the attention Eisenheim is giving to his fiancee. So he asks the Chief Inspector (Giamatti) to find out Eisenheim's secrets. And then get rid of him. If only it was that easy.

It's an intriguing story, and the film is elegantly produced. Writer-director Burger makes the most of the Czech locations, using what looks like flickering candles to light the sets, which adds loads of gothic atmosphere. So it's a little annoying that the magic scenes are heavily loaded with digital effects. Even though they keep talking about how the tricks are illusions, they're also clearly faked for the camera.

But the real problem is that it's all so deeply corny. The script is loaded with cheesy dialog and situations that play out in predictable ways. Even the story's twists and turns aren't really that inventive; they just seem that way because Burger works so hard to throw us off the scent. Fortunately, the cast is more than able to make this ludicrous material work in their favour.

Norton is fine in a fairly undemanding role, and Biel looks and acts so much like Scarlett Johansson that it's almost eerie (especially if you've already seen The Prestige, which is an entirely different kind of film). Sewell is terrific as the glowering, controlling prince. The best surprise is a superbly cast-against-type Marsan (as an edgy theatre manager), even though his character disappears for much of the film. And as the tenacious and dangerously curious cop Giamatti, as always, is worth the price of admission.

cert PG themes, some violence 24.Sep.06

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... The Illusionist Nigel Kelly, York, England: 5/5 "I was blown away by it. The atmosphere, locations, lighting and period feel were stunning. I disagree that there was over-use of digital effects. I feel that this was tastefully done in as minimilist a way possible, whilst still retaining the magical aura. The middle of the film came as a huge surprise, but I have to admit being even more surprised by the ending. A beautiful, romantic, enchanting period drama." (20.Feb.07)
2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall