In early 20th century Vienna, budding magician Eisenheim (Norton) falls in love with a girl above his social rank (Biel). Separated for years, they reunite when Eisenheim is a celebrated illusionist and his young love betrothed to a jealous Crown Prince (Sewell), who's not keen on losing his future wife to a trickster.
The Illusionist may be a little late with its “Ta-da!”, following so soon after the success of the similarly themed The Prestige. But to dismiss this lower-budget effort as a Martin Daniels to The Prestige’s Paul would be to ignore a film of handsome quality, with more than a bunch of flowers and a cramped budgie up its sleeve.
Like the tricks executed by the titular entertainer, the film unfolds with slow intricacy rather than pomp and bluster and a girl in a feathered headdress. Director Neil Burger asks patience and unwavering attention of his audience, insisting that they keep an eye on everything in order to decipher the mystery at the centre of the film, which we won’t spoil for you by revealing any part.
He has, in Edward Norton, a magnetic magical centre. Neatly bearded and gimlet-eyed, he is as distant and indecipherable as his illusions. He’s neither likeable nor dislikeable, but is impossible to ignore, making every word and movement seem as if it is done with a purpose that you should be remembering for later. There are hints throughout that he may be possessed of genuine supernatural power, and whether you choose to believe this or not will give you quite different takes on the plot.
The rest of the cast seem rather more animated, possibly in compensation for Norton. Jessica Biel, husky and Olympically pouty in a way that could cause Scarlett Johansson to reach for the collagen, is commendable in what could fairly be judged as her first serious role. Paul Giamatti gives the inspector investigating Eisenheim an avuncular appeal, while Rufus Sewell stamps around enjoyably as Biel’s jealous suitor.
Some might find the film’s delicate, unhurried treatment of what is, in essence, a folksy simple love story a little indulgently slow — and there are certainly points where it could do with hurrying a little quicker towards the prestige — but this is all about enjoying the detail. There are few who won’t guess what Eisenheim has done, but the fun is in trying to keep tabs on how he did it. And then trying the coin trick when you get home.
Its not on a gasp-inducing making-the-Statue-Of-Liberty-disappear level, but with its opulent presentation and confident storytelling, The Illusionist has the power to keep an audience rapt like a good old-fashioned card trick.