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Feature


Following years of travelling the world and honing his craft, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) returns to Vienna and creates a phenomenon with his incredible magic tricks and slights of hand. This return also reunites Eisenheim with his long lost childhood love, Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), now a duchess expected to marry the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Leopold is rumoured to be a violent man who doesn’t take kindly to his fiancé’s interest in Eisenheim, and puts Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti) on his case, in hopes of proving him a fraud.

Illusionist, The
As tends to happen, more often than it probably should, 2006 saw the release of two similar films from two competitive studios. This particular double vision didn’t feature anything as bombastic as earth-shattering asteroids, malevolent volcanoes, or effects heavy trips to Mars, rather both films focused on the comparatively down to earth adventures of stage magicians at the turn of the century. Writer/director Neil Burger’s The Illusionist beat writer/director Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige to theatres by a couple of months, but was not quite as popular, and has been somewhat overlooked outside the fact it was released so close to a similar production. Personally I never got around to seeing the film for this very reason. I unfairly assumed that seeing one 2006 magician movie was enough, and didn’t give Burger’s film a shot, until the Blu-ray appeared on my doorstep. The Illusionist is nothing if not an incredibly pretty motion picture. Director Neil Burger, who had little directing experience at the time, had a clear vision for the film, and he was smart to get his hands on cinematographer Dick Pope, the man behind the stylized photography of Dark City, The Reflecting Skin, and Topsy-Turvy. Pope successfully brings this extreme vision of candle-lit filmmaking to life. The only reason Pope didn’t earn himself an Oscar was a film called Pan’s Labyrinth came out the same year. I might also stick Matthew Libatique equally sepia-infused work on The Fountain (which also features similar repeating visual motifs) slightly ahead of Pope as well, but any other year he would’ve been the man to beat.

The film skirts the edge of stuffy, but the proper and old fashion tone doesn’t overwhelm the story or characters, even if the look does. A little humour goes a long way considering the overall tone. Melodrama is a valuable tool in the right hands, as are restrained performances, and the two create enough tension to keep the relatively simple (and frankly predictable) story moving. I personally never found myself fully invested in the romance or the tragedy, but I was never bored or drawn out of the situation either. I’ll admit my interest piqued more aggressively around the halfway point, which would pretty accurately be marked as the moment the ‘shit got real’, and the film threatened to take the more viscerally punchy revenge aspects of the less classy, but more entertaining Prestige. Despite strong performances from Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Jessica Biel (which was a surprise at the time), Paul Giamatti, who acts as narrator for most of the film, more or less steals every scene he appears in, and conveys a genuinely difficult combination of emotions without pressing himself over the top. Chief Inspector Uhl could’ve been a tradition antagonist, even a villain, but Giamatti’s performance captures all manners of gray, which eventually makes him the most compelling and sympathetic character in the entire film.

Illusionist, The

Video


The Illusionist was filmed, as most of you probably already know, with a very specific look in mind. The pallet is limited mostly to sepia tones and blacks, augmented by subtle greens and blues. This transfer recreates these hues effectively, and is occasionally punched-up with more intense reds. The lighting schemes are limited as well, equating the basic reality of lighting in the early electric era with a hint of style beyond reality. Blackness is an important element, and often presented as a solid, pure sheets with only slight highlights left to discern details. The DVD copy included in this collection becomes a bit muddied, and in the darkness the browns and golds are noisy with green. This 1080p transfer does away with both problems, creating a generally clearer vision, and much sharper edges. Details are not markedly sharper than the SD release, because fine details are not particularly important issues (the bulk of the photography is soft, and the focus is shallow). The flashback sequences are generally more blown-out with light, and include an artificial flicker, meant to equate the look of old film and candle light. The overall transfer is definitely touched with fine grain, but there’s not excessive noise, compression issues, or major edge-enhancement to speak of.

Illusionist, The

Audio


The Illusionist comes to Blu-ray with a simple and satisfying DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The film itself isn’t aurally overwhelming, often choosing subtly over reality, or immersive effects. Most of the film is presented plainly in the centre channel, and the dialogue, which is whispered for scene after scene, is consistently clear and natural. Basic sound effects are clean and clear, but set softly in the track to give way to words and music. Philip Glass’ dramatic and beautiful musical score, which leads great, long sections of the film over dialogue or effects, is the tracks shining element. The stage show scenes, which often see the music quieted, features some directional elements, plenty of crowd murmur in the rear channels, and some realistic echo. The brief hunting scene draws the most attention to itself with two really punchy, loud gunshots, but otherwise this soundtrack is most devoted to music and words, which is just right considering the film itself.

Illusionist, The

Extras


This is another case of Fox releasing a Blu-ray and DVD collection where all the extras are featured on the DVD, and none of them are anything new. I’m not a fan of the practice, but can’t really object, even though it would be easier and more pleasant to access extras from a single disc, especially when they’re terse. These begin with an audio commentary featuring writer/director Neil Burger. Burger hits the ground running, filling in the history behind the project, discussing his intensions as a writer/director, and praising his cast and crew without slobbering too much. Technical discussion is less enthralling than I’d hoped it would be, but the whole of the track is both informative and entertaining, though Burger does begin to lose steam as the time ticks by. ‘The Making of The Illusionist’ (04:00, SD) is you average elongated trailer EPK, featuring a great deal of spoiler free footage from the film, and press interviews with the major cast members. ‘Jessica Biel on The Illusionist’ (02:00, SD) is more of the same, taken from the exact interviews seen on the previous featurette. Extras end with a trailer, and trailers for other 2006 Fox releases.

Illusionist, The

Overall


I told myself I wasn’t going to compare The Illusionist to The Prestige in this review, but I find I couldn’t help it in the end. The two films do have quite a bit in common, but in the end have generally different goals, and had they been released a few years apart I doubt the comparisons would’ve been so thickly drawn between them. Christopher Nolan’s film was a puzzle box, with greater strengths and weaknesses, while The Illusionist manages to be a more consistent narrative, and the more incredible visual feast. I have problems with, and affection for both films, and cannot decide which, if either, is my favourite. Both films feature final reveals that disappoint in their imaginative scope, but satisfy in emotional terms. I suppose I’d find myself watching The Prestige on a more regular basis, but The Illusionist’s visual achievements moved me more. The Illusionist’s utter beauty makes this Blu-ray worth the upgrade for fans. I’ve directly compared the two transfers here, and the Blu-ray is much cleaner, more colourful, and features more impressive complex details. The DTS-HD track isn’t a huge improvement over the old Dolby Digital track, but Philip Glass’ moody and enthralling score certainly deserves the best it can get. The lack of Blu-ray extras is the only major disappointment.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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