out of Five
Running time: 100
Enjoyable, beautifully shot and impressively acted drama, although it's let down by a disappointing finale.
What's it all about?
Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, a mysterious stage illusionist in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Eisenheim's act intrigues Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who dispatches Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul
Giamatti) to uncover his secrets.
However, the stakes are raised when Leopold's fiancee, the beautiful Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), assists Eisenheim on stage and recognises him as her childhood sweetheart. As they rekindle their affair, a furious Leopold orders Uhl to destroy Eisenheim by any means necessary.
The film is beautifully shot throughout: writer-director Neil Burger makes terrific use of his Czech locations, employing low-key lighting and flickering film stock effects to create an impressive sense of atmosphere. This in turn is heightened by a typically stunning score from Philip Glass.
Norton is superb as Eisenheim although his clipped Viennese accent grates occasionally and makes him sound like John Malkovich on a bad day. Sewell and Biel are equally good and there's strong support from the ubiquitous Eddie Marsan as Eisenheim's assistant, but the film is comprehensively stolen by Paul Giamatti, whose portrayal of Uhl as an inquisitive and essentially decent man forms the heart of the film.
Unfortunately, the film's finale is something of a let-down. Given the impressive tricks on display and the fact that the film is called The Illusionist, you'll expect a jaw-dropping, pull-the-rug-from-under-you style twist, but instead all you'll be left with is a disappointingly obvious revelation and a profound feeling of, Is that it?
Our sense of wonder is meant to match that of the character onscreen (eg the end of The Usual Suspects) but the ending here merely serves to frustrate.
That said, The Illusionist is still an enjoyable film, thanks to superb performances, an intriguing script and impressive direction, but a decent ending would have elevated it into something special.