The Illusionist (2006)
'The Illusionist' is one of two 'magician' themed period films released in 2006, the other being 'The Prestige', which I wrote about here. This one is probably the lower profile and less familiar of the two; it is also, despite featuring similar subject matter, quite different from its spiritual sibling.
Edward Norton is Eisenheim the Illusionist, a dazzling performer who appears in Vienna and wows the crowds with his magic act. The film begins with Eisenhiem being arrested in the middle of his act by Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) for subversion or threatening the Empire (the exact charges elude me at the moment). It then goes into a flashback with narration by Uhl, and we are shown Eisenheim's childhood - he comes from a poor background, and a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger prompts him to practice the art of magic. He forms a friendship with a girl from an aristocratic family, but is eventually barred from seeing her. He then leaves his village and disappears for years before appearing again in Vienna. Here he discovers that the girl he knew, Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), is to be married to the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The two rekindle their relationship but realize that Leopold will never allow them to be together. Things take a sinister twist when Leopold finds out about them and her plans to leave him.
Watching this was disappointing after coming off the far superior 'The Prestige'. First, the magic tricks in this are all seemingly cheats, because they appear to be CGI assisted - extremely bizarre if, as I've heard, they're based on actual tricks from the era! Since from the viewer's perspective the tricks are so overblown that they can't possibly be an illusion, the credibility of the story, which attempts to walk the fence with regard to whether Eisenheim is practicing 'real' magic or simply executing incredibly convincing illusions, is undermined. Second, the plot is not even remotely surprising and ultimately doesn't make much sense, with almost the entire second half of the film being a pointless exercise that isn't justified by the characters' established motivations. Third, the characterization is sketchy for a romantic drama, with only Inspector Uhl coming across as truly well defined, possibly because he's given the most screen-time (or so it felt). In the end there's not much mystery or magic or wonder to be found (other than those of the annoyance inducing kind), and the whole thing feels leaden and the characters really hard to get behind.
On the plus side though, the film is very atmospheric with photography that has a magical 'golden tinge' look to it. The period detail is also quite lavish, with production values that are excellent overall. The cast is the film's strongest element. Norton turns in a predictably professional performance, even if there isn't that much substance to the character; he has a very enigmatic aura about him that works especially well during the magic sequences. Jessica Biel is surprisingly passable as a Duchess, though she doesn't really have much to do. Rufus Sewell, who always seems highly strung in everything I've seen him in, is in fine form as the sneering, detestable Crown Prince whose bark is far worse than his bite. The real star for me was Giamatti though, who plays the de facto central character in the story. Giamatti portrays Inspector Uhl as a man conflicted, caught between doing the right thing and doing what's best for his career; Uhl borders on the arrogant and the aristocratic, but there are moments where some decency shines through. He's also the only person fascinated and awed by the magic on display, a reaction that helps to build up Eisenheim's image as a master conjurer. It's the type of fascination with the subject matter that the film itself is lacking, actually.
'The Illusionist' is a well made film that isn't bad but at the same time doesn't excel in any way. I guess it's one of those that you can watch if you happen to catch it on TV, but isn't really worth watching of your own volition. In the battle of the period magician movies, 'The Prestige' definitely comes out on top.