I don’t know where to start talking about The Illusionist. I mean, I only have two choices, so it’s really just a coin toss. I’ll start with Neil Burger. Burger adapted the script from a short story, which means he was probably confined to some degree. The Illusionist is not a “wow“ of a film in its story. It’s a fine, predictable, enjoyable magician movie with some nice special effects. So I don’t want to talk about Burger and the film on those issues. The writing ones. Burger’s direction is something special. It’s a very geeky approach to cinema–I was reminded of The Call of Cthulhu, the recent film, not the short story–because Burger directs the flashbacks and most of the romantic scenes between Ed Norton and Jessica Biel like a silent film, in terms of lighting, framing, editing and transitions. It works to an okay effect. It’s more impressive in its competence initially than anything else. Then Burger transitions to the present action of the story and he films a lot of the establishing scenes much like a Universal horror picture of the 1930s. The Vienna scenery lends itself perfectly to that approach. Then he goes on. The silent film techniques are still there for certain scenes, but Burger immerses the audience in historical Vienna–to the degree I even believed Biel lived there too. I didn’t quite believe Norton would love Biel or even that Rufus Sewell’s Prince Revolting would tolerate her even for political gain, but I did believe she was in 1800s Vienna.
Now for the second part. Paul Giamatti. His performance in the film is something singular. It’s a privilege to see Giamatti perform. He manages to chew scenery in a reserved manner, making his performance wholly believable but also joyous to behold. His performance is so good, it’s like the rest of the film doesn’t matter–it’s gravy the rest of the film is a perfectly reasonable diversion. The Illusionist wraps a piece of escapist storytelling in Burger’s masterful direction (which is in Dick Pope’s sumptuous lighting–sumptuous is the only word for it, absolutely stunning to look at), and a good Philip Glass score. Some of the Glass score seems redundant and repetitive of his previous work, but it’s fine.
I’ve only mentioned Norton in passing, but he’s real good here. Even if the only time he gets to act is in the scenes with Giamatti. Watching the two of them work together is wonderful. Like I said, Biel isn’t unbelievable and there are only a handful of moments when she’s ridiculous (I had assumed it’d be every minute she was on screen). Rufus Sewell’s evil prince is a lot of fun for a couple reasons. First, Sewell plays the perfect hissable villain (hard to believe, ten years ago, he was the best up-and-coming leading man Hollywood). Second, it’s like he’s doing a Freud impression. Loads of fun.
I was shocked to see Burger’s only done one film before this one, I have unrealistically high expectations of him now. As for Giamatti, I’m even considering seeing Lady in the Water, blasphemy of a considerable level.
I do wonder if the film could have been done without the red herrings and the twists, but I doubt it. There’s not much of a story in the end (for example, is Giamatti’s police inspector married?). So, it’s just a diversion and a better one than most.
Directed by Neil Burger; screenplay by Burger, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Naomi Geraghty; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; produced by Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman; released by Yari Film Group.
Starring Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Paul Giamatti (Chief Inspector Uhl), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Johnson (Young Eisenheim) and Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie).