- Edward Norton as Eisenheim
- Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl
- Jessica Biel as Duchess Sophie Von Teschen
- Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold
An intriguing blend of mystery, romance and hints of fantasy, The Illusionist like its protagonist casts a spell on you from beginning to end. Handsomely directed and visually arresting, it burns itself into the memory with its sleight of hand events and effective performances.
In turn of the century Vienna, the magician Eisenheim thrills audiences with his performances that seem to defy the odds and point at possible supernatural talents. As a child, Eisenheim came from a poor family and he became interested in magic tricks and similar things. He also fell in love with Sophie, a young duchess from a prominent family. Their relationship was forbidden when discovered because of the difference in social standing. As a result, a teenage Eisenheim traveled the world, honing his craft with the art of magic. Now back in Vienna, he is the centre of attention for his audience. During one specific performance, the Crown Prince Leopold attends with a now grown up Sophie, who he is engaged to. During the performance, Eisenheim requires a volunteer and finds one in Sophie. Both recognize each other immediately and remember how their love was thwarted. An obvious candle still burns between them after meeting again. But the Crown Prince is not one to be competed with, as he exercises strict and sadistic control over the people around him, mainly Sophie who sees more as a possession than as a lover. Eisenheim also gives a private performance for the Crown Prince in which he humiliates him. Angered by what he sees as an attack on his authority, the Prince tasks his Chief Inspector Uhl to investigate Eisenheim and prove he is nothing but a money-making fraud. But Uhl, while loyal to the Prince and his job, begins to respect Eisenheim and his act, becoming very curious about how he does it. As Eisenheim and independently minded Sophie secretly start their relationship again due to the thwarted passion that separated them, a battle of wills ensues between the magician and the prince, leading to shocking consequences. But in this game of trickery and love, all is not as it seems.
From the opening frames of mist and golden curtains, you just know that The Illusionist is going to draw you in. And so it does with its plot and execution. Writer and director Neil Burger conjures up a mysterious atmosphere of stifled emotions and repressed romance eventually breaking through with aplomb. Burger successfully keeps the audience on their toes regarding the mystery over Eisenheim and his talents. Is he really channeling something not of this world or not? That is where the effectiveness of this movie lies, in the intriguing mystery surrounding the eponymous magician. A huge highlight of The Illusionist has to be the sumptuous cinematography. It cloaks the movie in hues of burnt gold and shadows, enhancing the magical aura that Eisenheim brings and also the lavish but restricted lives of those in power. You couldn’t have asked for better cinematography for a film like this, it is that awe-inspiring to view as you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to turn of the century Vienna. A swirling score from Philip Glass gives romance to The Illusionist, while effectively giving us many pieces that enhance the overall mystery that hangs over Eisenheim.
In terms of acting, The Illusionist succeeds thanks to a talented cast giving their all to their roles. Heading the proceedings is the ever intense Edward Norton portraying the elusive Eisenheim. Filled with intelligence, passion and glints of mystery, Edward Norton has fun with the part that doesn’t reveal too much but just enough to keep us curious over whether Eisenheim is supernaturally talented or merely just a clever conjurer fooling his audience. The always reliable Paul Giamatti contributes nervous energy and a sense of conflicted loyalty as his character feels obliged to do the Prince’s bidding but is very curious about Eisenheim as well. Giamatti successfully blends those two components to make a great performance. I’ve spoken in the past about how Jessica Biel for a while didn’t do much for me as an actress. I always found she was in loads of action movies and not given enough to do. It’s then I realized that it wasn’t Biel I had the problem with, it was the films she was lumbered with. When given the right material she really flourishes and that’s exactly what she does in this movie. Luscious, composed and filled with an imprisoned desire, Biel makes quite an impression as Sophie; the object of affection who still carries a deep love for her childhood friend. Rounding out the impressive quartet of performers is Rufus Sewell as the sadistic and cruel Prince. Sewell emits this immediately slimy quality that makes the audience feel revulsion towards and he does it well.
Passionate and laced with enigmas, The Illusionist is well-crafted film making that gains power from striking visuals and stellar work from the cast.