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At the Box Office, The Illusionist ended up playing second fiddle to the ‘other’ magic movie to be released in 2006. A lot has been made on forums and message boards about which is the better movie but since I haven’t seen The Prestige yet, I have the luxury of being able to take an impartial look at The Illusionist

Illusionist, The

Feature


Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, an enigmatic stage magician who arrives in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century and immediately causes a storm with his tricks, the likes of which have never been seen before. This attracts the attention of the Crown Prince and his bride-to-be, the Duchess Von Teschen, played by Jessica Biel. The Duchess and Eisenheim were childhood sweethearts and their love is rekindled as the Prince enlists Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to close down his shows and run him out of town, seeing the illusionist's talents as a threat to his own authority.

The Illusionist is based on a short story, but in order to stretch it out to a feature film many additions have been made, most of all the romantic link between Eisenheim and the Duchess. Rather than focusing on magic as the main theme for the movie, this is very much a period story of forbidden love with a twist in the tale. As such, The Illusionist is made for mainstream audiences of Hollywood movies, where the original story could just as easily have been produced as a European art-house film.

Illusionist, The
The screenplay itself is functional at best. It keeps the story moving along but there are no real killer memorable lines. What sets this movie above the run-of-the-mill level is the performances by the male leads. Edward Norton is reliably intense as the tortured soul who is always one step ahead of everyone else and his relationship with Paul Giamatti’s character is what gives The Illusionist its spark. Giamatti is excellent as the chief inspector, an amateur magician who is torn between his grudging loyalty to the Crown Prince and his respect for the genius of Eisenheim. The character of the Crown Prince is a stock period bad guy (complete with elaborate facial hair), but Rufus Sewell’s performance gives him a little more intelligence than may be expected. Jessica Biel, on the other hand, does not stand out among the crowd and isn’t missed when she’s not on screen for long periods in the film.

In an effort to provide realism, all of the magic tricks featured in The Illusionist are tricks that magicians performed at the time. To make his performance as convincing as possible, Edward Norton underwent significant training in magic and sleight of hand. However, there are moments where physical illusions and gadgetry were not possible and CGI is used sparingly, but this is where suspension of disbelief is pushed a little too far and even though it is not the point of the movie, we are forced to question whether Eisenheim has supernatural powers.

Illusionist, The
As we work our way towards the big twist, The Illusionist loses its way slightly in the second half. The romantic elements and friendships between the characters are abandoned to keep the story moving along but the focal point switches from Eisenheim to the chief inspector. It feels like a film of two halves that could have been shorter if its structure had been focused exclusively on Eisenheim.

However, in addition to the performances, Philip Glass’ orchestral score is wonderful and the cinematography is beautiful, using iris effects and flickering lighting to give the impression of early silent films. What that leaves us with is a movie that’s good (but not great) in spite of the story, which is actually the weakest thing about it, but if you’re after a movie with strong performances that looks really good, The Illusionist is worth checking out.

Illusionist, The

Video


If you like your movies to have a heavy dose of brown then The Illusionist is definitely the one for you, my friend. From beginning to end, the picture is coloured with sepia tones and the video quality does nothing to stop it looking good on a big screen. The Illusionist is also a well-lit movie, which means large areas of black and dark brown, which don’t show obvious signs of compression. There are many clever lighting tricks inspired by silent movies and the clear anamorphic picture ensures you won’t miss them.

Audio


The only audio option available is the Dolby Digital 5.1 track and it does its job of showcasing Philip Glass’ score, which is great in surround sound. However, with all the emphasis on the music, the dialogue doesn’t seem to have been given quite as much attention. The dialogue is clear enough but the volume level is lower than the music and on a balanced surround setup, the music sounds good but the dialogue sounds a little soft in comparison.

Illusionist, The

Extras


The disc opens with skippable trailers for Amazing Grace, The Painted Veil and The Hoax plus that bloody annoying advert for Maltesers that tainted the Miss Potter DVD. I assume it has infected all recent Momentum DVD releases in the UK, so stay vigilant and keep your finger on the skip button.

Director Neil Burger supplies a commentary track, which is very informative, in particular explaining how the magic tricks in the movie would have been performed at the time and how they were adapted for the screen. He also goes into detail about how he got into making the movie (from a conversation with magical mentalist David Blaine) and how the members of the cast came on board. The only thing missing from the commentary is a bit of banter and I would have liked him to have Edward Norton along for the ride as well.

The ‘Making of’ featurette features interviews with the main cast, where they talk about their characters and how they got into making the film. The featurette is interview-heavy and doesn’t include as much behind-the-scenes footage as I would have liked. An Easter egg is also included (accessible from the main menu by selecting the necklace icon), which tells the viewer how to perform magic tricks. I was hoping for a video demonstration from the magicians who trained Edward Norton but unfortunately, all we get are pages of text.

Illusionist, The

Overall


The Illusionist is an enjoyable movie with strong performances that lift it to a level above the source material. The extras are a little bit more than the bare minimum and while the commentary is a welcome addition, the ‘Making of’ doesn't add much to the viewing experience. However, the film itself is presented well and is just about good enough on its own to warrant picking up this DVD when it hits the shops.


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