I avoided “The Illusionist” for a long time. I like Edward Norton, I think Paul Giamatti is great, but how can anyone take any film with Jessica Biel playing a 19th Century Viennese Countess seriously? This is such a calculated move on everyone’s part, it turned me off. The filmmakers were obviously looking for a pretty actress, with some name recognition, that they could afford. Biel was obviously looking for a film that would show “I’m a serious actress”. Then, the reviews for Norton were lukewarm, so I had even more reason to stay away.
During a family visit, the only film I hadn’t seen that my mom and step dad would see was “The Illusionist”. While Norton is rather lackluster and Biel doesn’t fit, the film has a very stylized look making it worth a look as a bargain matinee or on DVD.
Eisenheim (Norton), a magician, makes a triumphant return to Vienna, his hometown, after touring the world and earning a reputation for himself. He mesmerizes the audience with his illusions, including Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti). Soon, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) hears of the magician and attends the performance with his fiancée, Sophie (Biel). Asking for a volunteer, Eisenheim brings Sophie on stage and performs a trick. Later, he reminds her that they were once friends, as children. Eisenheim learns Sophie is unhappy and doesn’t want to marry the Crown Prince, a man with a questionable past and a history of violence towards women. But what can Eisenheim do to correct the situation?
Written and directed by Neil Burger, “The Illusionist”, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, is an interesting film to watch. Sepia tones flood every frame, given it the appearance of the old daguerreotypes. Throughout, Burger uses a number of old fashioned editing techniques, giving the film the appearance of an old silent film. Both of these elements, and the settings, combine to make for an almost lovely film.
But then he has to deal with the actors and he is less successful on that front. Edward Norton has done some great work in his previous films, but As Eisenheim he seems almost lifeless. There are brief moments when he shows conflict, or emotion, but these are few and far between. From an actor with the talent of Norton, this is a disappointment. Norton is one of those actors who used to show so much promise, people called him the next Brando or Lancaster, but he hasn’t shown that type of range or skill since “The Italian Job”, a film he was forced to participate in because of a contractual obligation. If you want to go back to his last intense role that would probably have to be “American History X”.
Biel is, if anything, acceptable. But I can’t help but imagine what an actress with the skill of Julianne Moore or Laura Linney might have done with the role. Yes, they are each too old, but their talent would have transformed this character. As it is, Biel is required to do little than stand around and look wistful. Thankfully, she doesn’t try to do much of an accent. I get the feeling that would have transformed the film into high camp.
Paul Giamatti is interesting as Chief Inspector Uhl, a man who initially welcomes the performances of Eisenheim, but when the Crown Prince recognizes the danger of the magician, quickly turns against the illusionist. Uhl is under the control of the Crown Prince and must do what he wants. Throughout, Giamatti manages to convey the characters conflict of emotions and feelings. But during the last few minutes, as Giamatti realizes the games that have been perpetuated upon him, he stares to the heavens as the camera circles him. As realization dawns, he claps, once. Leaving the theater, I remarked that he thankfully kept the clapping to a minimum. The one clap is corny enough, but to have the clapping continue and have Uhl remark “Bravo!”, well, once again, we are approaching high camp.
“The Illusionist” is an interesting film for the visuals, and this makes it worth a look at bargain matinee prices. Or perhaps on DVD. I doubt you will find little of interest in the actor’s performances.