In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing. When the woman is murdered, the magician communes with her spirit to uncover the identity of her murderer.
Magicians were all over the place in 2006. If I remember correctly, the same year saw the release of The Prestige and Scoop. Our fascination with magic and illusions makes it hard to turn down a movie that promises spectacle, but somehow I never saw any of these films in theaters.
The Illusionist definitely delivers on the spectacle, with some very pretty visuals. I’ve read that Edward Norton, who played the magician Eisensheim, learned how to do many of the tricks himself, but as you watch it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t helped along the way by talented special effects artists. Beautiful period costume and careful, intense lighting really helped this story feel dramatic.
But it also feels flat and artificial. I’ve never been much of a Norton fan because he often seems so wooden, and this film is no exception. He’s so blank much of the time, even at those critical times when the character is clearly supposed to be feeling something. Jessica Biel, as the romantic lead, never seemed fully present, either. In the flashbacks, she works – she’s a memory so it’s OK that she seems a little faded. But in the scenes where she’s at the side of the Crown Prince as the pretty high society Duchess, she lacks presence. Only Paul Giamatti, in his role as the police inspector investigating Sophie’s murder, ever seemed like a real, breathing person with passions.
I hear that of the three 2006 magician movies, The Prestige was the best-received. Perhaps I’ll watch that one next and see if it is more magical.