The first of the year's two magic pictures (the other being "The Prestige"), writer/director Neil Burger's "The Illusionist" (based on the short story by Steven Millhauser) stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim the Illusionist, a magician whose remarkable feats shock and amaze the crowds in Vienna in the early 1900's. Not long after the open, the movie provides a flashback to when Eisenheim was younger and had fallen in love with both magic and a young girl named Sophie, who is of a higher class. Eisenheim finds himself in deep trouble and, separated from his love, decides to leave to travel the world.
Years later, Eisenheim has returned to Vienna and his performances have drawn the suspicion of the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti). At one of Eisenheim's shows, Sophie (Jessica Biel) - now with the Crown Prince - is brought up to assist in a trick and Eisenheim finds that his love for her has reappeared. Their passion sparked, the two embark on a love affair, resulting a love triangle that's dangerous for both of them.
Essentially, that's the core of the story and - aside from the mild magic angle - it does tend to feel rather familiar. The film's other main issue is the fact that it remains emotionally cool and distant throughout much of its running time. The performances are reasonably good, although no one aside from maybe Biel is at their best here. Giamatti is entertaining as the determined detective, although Norton has rarely been as uninteresting as he is here. The few an
As for the visuals, the film's lovely, dream-like imagery certainly catches the eye, as do the remarkable Prague locations. However, the fact that CGI is obviously used to create some of the tricks does take away from the magic a bit. Overall, "Illusionist" isn't quite a treat, but it isn't a trick, either: this is a mildly engaging and visually impressive mystery/drama that has some moments but lacks needed urgency and momentum.
VIDEO: "Illusionist" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The screening copy of the film that was provided offered reasonably fine image quality, with some mild artifacting being the main concern. However, this is still not the final copy and unfortunately, I cannot make any final comments on it, as the final copy will likely offer differing (and hopefully even better) image quality.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation was enjoyable, as it did a wonderful job presenting one of the film's best features - the haunting and atmospheric score from Phillip Glass. Audio quality was terrific, with crisp dialogue, score and effects. Surround use was limited, although that's understandable in a film like this.
EXTRAS: We get an audio commentary from writer/director Neil Berger, a "making of" featurette, a short interview with Biel and trailers.
Final Thoughts: Overall, "Illusionist" isn't quite a treat, but it isn't a trick, either: this is a mildly engaging and visually impressive mystery/drama that has some moments but lacks needed urgency and momentum. Rent it.
The Film B-