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  Illusionist, The The Big Reveal
Year: 2006
Director: Neil Burger
Stars: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson, Karl Johnson, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Blane, Philip McGough, Erich Redman, Michael Carter
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Romance, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: The audience in this Viennese theatre is sitting with rapt attention in a hushed silence as the famed illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) performs what they believe to be an actual miracle. As he sits deep in concentration, a shifting image appears near him, transforming into a figure that prompts one of the city's top police inspectors, Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to leap to his feet, walk onto the stage and tell everyone there that Eisenheim is now under arrest. But for what charge? To understand that, one must return to the story of the magician's childhood, where according to legend he gained his thirst for illusion after a meeting with a mysterious old man...

Well, it wasn't so much a taste for illusion as we know it on the stage or practiced by Paul Daniels or David Copperfield, but more known by the team of computer wizards who put this film's effects together, only one of the reasons why it looks pretty daft. Another is that it depicts a tale whose punchline is about as hard to believe as the supposed fancy tricks its lead character plays, a problem which afflicted a film that was released about the same time as this only to much higher recognition. It was a case of two films emerging almost simultaneously with strikingly similar subject matter, whether by coincidence or otherwise: think back to the golden summer when we were blessed with Armageddon and Deep Impact for an example.

Ah, yes, we truly didn't know how lucky we were. Anyway, in the battle between The Illusionist and The Prestige, it was the latter that garnered most of the respect, as many audiences rejected the former after thinking, well, we've already seen it all before with the Christopher Nolan movie, right? And in this case, maybe they had a point, not because one was markedly better than the other, but because they shared that unconvincing plot issue, though here it was more wrapped up in swooning romanticism. That romance was between Eisenheim and his childhood sweetheart cruelly taken away from him as a teenager, played as an adult by Jessica Biel in the role of a Duchess.

Not just any old Duchess, but the one who is the fiancée of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the heir to the throne and a man who is one of those people driven up the wall by magic tricks and has to know exactly how they're done. In this he is foiled, because when Eisenheim makes a name for himself and attracts the Prince's attention, there doesn't seem to be any way that he can work out those setpieces, and you won't either, mainly because director Neil Burger, adapting a short story by Steven Millhauser, chose not to recreate famous illusions as they would have been done back in the nineteenth century, but through computer graphics, which jolts you out of the carefully crafted period detail as surely as if Norton had whipped out a Rubik's Cube and solved it in thirty seconds before an aghast crowd.

Almost as distracting as the effects is trying to work out what accent the cast are trying to do; it sounds English at times, at other there's a Germanic inflection to it, with the surprising result that Norton's voice resembles Anthony Hopkins quite often. Then there is the remarkable array of facial furniture that the actors wear, with Sewell in possession of a very strange looking moustache with tips as sharp as his ornamental sword: you get the impression that if Biel could have gotten away with sporting a Van Dyke, she would have. As to whether the love affair at the heart of the plot makes you forget all these sidetracking elements, well it's not really any more convincing, thanks to zero chemistry between Ed and Jessica, which fails to sweep you off your feet as evidently all were hoping. There must have been easier ways to get the characters together than what they worked out, not to mention far less immoral. Music by Philip Glass.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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