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Saturday January 20, 2007 4:46 am

The Illusionist DVD Review

Illusionist Poster

The Illusionist takes place in early 20th–century Vienna, where young Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a poor but brilliant magician, falls for a wealthy duchess (Jessica Biel).  Fearing societal ridicule, her family forbids the relationship and the lovers become separated for many years.  When the duchess is engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Eisenhiem must use his unique skill to regain her heart, distract the nosy Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), and escape the vengeful wrath of the crown prince.  The Illusionist is a focused and introspective story that, unlike its ‘prestigious’ rival, uses mystical effect to flesh out, not upstage, a powerful tale of love.

The Illusionist is directed by Neil Burger and based on a short story by Steven Millhauser.  Rated PG-13.

For one to simply disregard The Illusionist as the other ‘magic’ film from last year, one might miss the very thing that sets it so far apart.  The story centers on two lovers, fated to be separated due to difference in social status and wealth.  While the film dabbles in visual spectacle and mystery, the strong bond between these two is at the heart of the story, allowing the more classic tale to be enhanced by small and sparse, but wondrous illusions.  In this way, The Illusionist becomes everything that The Prestige could not be: moving, emotional, pensive.  Prestige merely scratched the romantic surface of a love story, and instead followed the path of science fiction, grandiose effect, and male competition and greed, mixed with twist after agonizing twist.  Consequently, I’m still not sure I totally understand that movie and I’m not convinced anyone does.  The two films put into one, however, may have been the greatest magician film in the history of the world, with both jaw-dropping effect and passionate love to please both sexes.  I realize it is irresponsible to compare two films simply because they both premiered in the same year and both deal in prestidigitation, but it’s really, really hard not to go there.

All comparison aside, The Illusionist has a lot going for it.  Obviously Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti have some weight, Rufus Sewell is perfect as a reflective prick, but the real surprise is Jessica Biel, who held her own against stacked odds: period drama, Austrian accent, and my overall disdain.  But whatever begot my original misgivings about Biel quickly melted away as I watched Mary from 7th Heaven act circles around seasoned veterans.

The film uses subtle effect to capture bits of 1900s atmosphere and enhance emotional affect.  For instance, certain scenes had a sepia tint or one of those weird spotlight wipes, both of which flowed very well with the more contemporary shots.  At one point, when the crown prince violently slaps the duchess, Biel keeps her head turned just long enough for us to watch her face redden.  The budget was obviously a small one ($17 million) and director Neil Burger utilized every penny in a most affecting way.  Unfortunately, the budget becomes more conspicuous whenever any stage magic is on display.  While the special effects are just fine for a film, it seems hardly possible that the audience in the scene could see anything, let alone be awed by it.

The special features here are banal: director commentary, featurettes, trailers.  Oddly, they made a short featurette about the making of the film with a few quick cast interviews, then reedited the featurette with only Jessica Biel’s interview and called it Jessica Biel on The Illusionist.  Apparently, this allowed them to squeeze two featurettes out of one, which is really, really stupid.  But, hey, maybe there’s hope for a special edition sometime in the near future.

If you’re looking for the same bells and whistles found in The Prestige, this one may not be for you.  Though the script is intelligent and the locations breathtaking, the special effects and plot may leave some wanting more.  But what it lacks in pace and spectacle, it makes up for in refreshing simplicity and grace.  And because it’s still a film about magic – full of mystery, deception, and misdirection – don’t be surprised when the end leaves you gripping your seat and smiling widely. 

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