Film Review: The Illusionist

Paul Giamatti is excellent – as always – Edward Norton is mysterious and intense, and Jessica Biel is out of place yet a beauty in The Illusionist.

Set in early 20th Century Vienna, The Illusionist tells the story of the love affair between Eisenheim the Illusionist (Norton) and Sophie (Biel), the soon-to-be fiancee of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Falling in love as children, Sophie and Eisenheim are forbidden to see each other because they come from different social worlds. When they try to run away together their plot is foiled by Sophie’s family and Eisenheim leaves Vienna to escape the pain. Fast forward 15 years and we find Eisenheim performing mind-boggling feats, the secrets to which he learned during his travels across Russia, Asia Minor, and the Orient. When his act catches the attention of the chief inspector (Giamatti) Leopold comes to see the spectacle.

When prompted for a volunteer, Leopold offers up the lovely Sophie to take part, leading down the ill-fated path of their affair leaving accusations of murder, fraud, evil wizardry, and deception in its wake.

Always a fan of Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton, I was pleased with their respective performances. Norton is at times playful, ever the showman, certainly passionate and never reveals too much of what is really going on. He is somewhat overshadowed by the performance of Giamatti who lowers his voice and aptly takes on the air of authority without arrogance that carries the film and drives the plot forward even when it feels like it’s beginning to slow down. Jessica Biel plays the defiant intended without much depth and she doesn’t add much to the dialogue other than being the driving force behind Eisenheim’s actions. In many ways, she’s there as eye candy – not that I’m complaining – more than she is there to add much to the discussion. (Though it is turn-of-the-century Europe when women weren’t as empowered.)

All in all I’d say The Illusionist is an ok film. I don’t regret seeing it, but I didn’t leave the theater feeling like it was great either. I can’t put my finger on it but there was something lacking in it. There isn’t a lot of humor to lighten the mood – though there are a couple of scenes that have whimsical elements – so maybe that’s it. In most films there is a good balance of drama, comedy, tragedy, suspense, and romance. Even if the movie is predominantly one over the rest, the others are still present to provide a wholeness to the story. The Illusionist had each of these elements but the balance was off just enough to bring it down a little.

But, again, overall it’s not bad.

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