The Illusionist (2006)

Film review: The Illusionist (2006), directed by Neil Burger

Austria, late 1800s or early 1900s. A cabinet maker’s son befriends, and falls in love with, a young duchess. They’re found out and torn apart. Years later, when the cabinet maker’s son, whose name is Eisenheim (Edward Norton), is all grown up and has travelled around and learnt the secrets of illusionism that he didn’t know as a love-struck teenager, he meets the duchess, Sophie (Jessica Biel), again.

Sophie is engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a man known not to treat his women kindly. Sparks fly between Sophie and Eisenheim, and it’s not long before they plan on running away together. Problem is, the Crown Prince is not going to let his would-be wife run off with someone else, and because he’s royalty, he’s free to do as he likes. Who would be so foolish as to dare accuse him of murder?

Also starring Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl and Eddie Marsan as Eisenheim’s manager.

I’m always fascinated when Hollywood produces two films on similar themes at the same time. Armageddon and Deep Impact spring to mind, as do Antz and A Bug’s Life, but there’s also The Illusionist and The Prestige. Both are set in similar time periods, and both are about illusionists, love and murder. Unfortunately though, when there are two films with similar ideas, they will always be compared with each other and one will inevitably come out on top. In this case, it’s not The Illusionist.

It’s illusionism, a little bit of a ghost story and definitely a mystery, all rolled up in period drama and tied off with a little bit of magic. It’s good, but it’s not particularly surprising. It’s very interesting, and has a great feel of the period in it, but I didn’t find it particularly engaging. The Prince is a privileged jerk who doesn’t want to share his toys, so to speak, and has an inspector stalking Eisenheim and who wants to know the secret of one of Eisenheim’s magic tricks.

It’s all a bit “okay, yeah, whatever” over the film. It’s well done and everything, and the would-be séances are an intriguing idea (some sort of projection, I presume?), but it’s none the less a film I’d probably record only to realise that it seems very familiar when watching it – because I’ve forgotten that I’ve seen it before.

Still, The Illusionist has some interesting ideas, passes the time and there are worse ways that can be done. And let’s be honest – the period costumes and settings are fabulous.

3.4 out of 5 missing gems.

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