The Illusionist is a captivating tale of mystery and romance set in 19th century Vienna. Starring Ed Norton in the title role with support from Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl the film tells the story of Eisenheim the Illusionist and his romance with the socially superior Sophie. This is a lavish production with plenty of style and some excellent acting performances which is only let down by the ending.
We open with Inspector Uhl invading the stage at one of Eisenheim´s performances and placing him under arrest. We soon learn Eisenheim is a talented illusionist and we flashback to his childhood with Inspector Uhl narrating his story. As a young lad he belonged to a poor and undistinguished family and because of this his relationship with the aristocratic Sophie was perceived as a problem. Under pressure from her family the young Eisenheim left his home and travelled the world gradually amassing magical skills.
Eisenheim returns to Vienna years later to put on a show and promptly becomes the talk of the town. Crown Prince Leopold himself comes to see the show with his beautiful fiance who it turns out is Eisenheim´s childhood sweetheart Sophie. So begins a dangerous battle for her affections between Eisenheim and the psychotic Crown Prince. As Eisenheim´s shows become more and more impressive the people of Vienna begin to doubt they are tricks at all and many come to believe he possesses some kind of divine power to summon and talk to the dead. As his popularity grows it becomes more difficult for Inspector Uhl under the command of the Prince to remove him. The film builds towards a fairly predictable twist ending.
The film is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser and was adapted for the screen and directed by Neil Burger. Burger is relatively inexperienced for such a big budget production but he does a decent job. The art style fits the period perfectly and the costume and set design are complimented by the sepia visuals and the apparently aged film with darkened corners. The pace is somewhat slow and the film does drag a little at times. However the lingering dreamlike scenes mostly hold the interest and they do much to accentuate the sense of mystery.
The acting performances are excellent especially from the charismatic Paul Giamatti who plays the befuddled and bemused Inspector perfectly, bearded and never without his pipe his narration dissects the puzzle slowly and methodically. Ed Norton´s character Eisenheim by contrast has little to say for himself; dark and brooding he is a deliberately mysterious character but Norton has no trouble conveying his emotions and motivations without dialogue. Jessica Biel was ideal as Sophie and Rufus Sewell notched up another convincing bad guy with Crown Prince Leopold.
The Illusionist is a beautifully made movie and yet despite the terrific cinematography and excellent acting it falls short of being a great film. While the first half of the film was captivating and full of promise the second half slipped into cliche and the end twist was contrived and predictable. The audience are kept in the dark as to whether Eisenheim actually has any powers or is merely a master trickster and despite his own denials about any supernatural power the later illusions he performs are clearly impossible without the aid of modern special effects.
This is an entertaining film and worth the time but it may leave you feeling underwhelmed.