Based off a Pulitzer Prize winning short story, The Illusionist is a film about a magician who must overcome class struggle throughout his life in order to win the hand of his lover. Not only are the illusions mysterious but so are some of the events that occur in the magician’s life. Both Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti give solid performances in this magic themed film.
Taking place around the turn of the last century, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) is traveling around on tour showcasing his masterful illusions to many stunned audiences. His audience seems to grow with each new show and when his tour comes to Vienna, he gets an opportunity to perform for Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). That is where things start to get interesting.
In a series of flashbacks, we see a young Eisenheim, who at that time went by his real name, Edward. As a young child he had been fascinated by magic and had been trying to perfect it since. His family was poor and his childhood love was a young duchess named Sophie (Jessica Biel). It almost goes without saying but their love was frown upon by others. So at an early age they separated from one another.
Crown Prince Leopold prides himself on logic and believes he can solve how Eisenheim does his illusions. When the audience is asked for a volunteer, the crown prince sends up his fiancée-to-be. As she gets onto the stage Eisenheim suddenly realizes who she is, his long-last lady love Sophie.
Eisenheim quickly learns of her intent to marry the crown prince just as the crown prince learns about Sophie and Eisenheim’s past. Both have their own plans to take each other out and win over the girl. Leopold gets the Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to follow Eisenheim and find out how he performs his illusions. By doing this he hopes he can expose and thus discredit Eisenheim as a magician.
Things take a turn when Sophie turns up dead soon after refusing Leopold. Eisenheim has his own plan to use Inspector Uhl to find evidence about the case that will expose Leopold as a murderer. Uhl has always been fond of Eisenheim but now has an internal struggle between helping Eisenheim or helping Leopold which could grant him more power.
The Illusionist is based on a short story called Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser and feels more like a fairy tale than it does a film. This may be because of how unbelievable the illusions that Eisenheim performs. Such as an orange tree growing out of a pot that produces real oranges in a matter of a minute all while butterflies hover above it. It also may feel like a fairy tale because the story centers on a poor boy and a rich girl that know their love is true but stands in their way is a socially powerful man.
Edward Norton shines in the lead role as the witty and charming illusionist. He even did many of his own magic tricks in the film. Jessica Biel does not stand out but is not given much chance even though two men fighting over her is the central plot. On the other hand, Paul Giamatti may have stood out the most. I think Giamatti had the best performance in this film and further proving he is an under-rated actor.
It may be unfair to compare films, but it is hard to ignore it when the both The Illusionist and The Prestige both came out in 2006 and are both about magicians. Even their titles are somewhat similar. They both were nominated for the same award at the 2007 Academy Awards, Best Achievement in Cinematography, which they both lost. In my opinion, I believe Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige to be the better of the two. Each has their own uniqueness and qualities but The Prestige did most of them better.
The Illusionist is an aesthetically pleasing fairy tale-like film. As a viewer, we are like the audience in the film. We watch Eisenheim perform his illusions and wonder whether or not they are supernatural or not as we try to figure out the trick. Unfortunately, the middle act of the film drags on a bit especially compared to the romantic filled beginning and ending acts. Which would not have been such a problem if the connection between Sophie and Eisenheim did not slip as the focus of the film.