September 10, 2006

Movie Review: The Illusionist

What do you get when you combine romantic period drama with the supernatural? Unfortunately you get The Illusionist. A film that is as well acted and beautifully shot, yet mind numbingly generic, and ultimately pointless.

The film begins with Eisenheim the Illusionist, played by Edward Norton, onstage in front of an audience. He begins his act, which features a shimmering apparition appearing next to him, but before the image can become clear, he is arrested by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). We then jump into flashback mode.

Eisenheim is introduced as a much younger man named Edward, and his would be love, Sophie, played by the lovely Jessica Biel. Their love is not to be, as Sophie comes from the upper class, while Edward belongs to the lower class. These types of relationships are not to be tolerated. Edward ends up leaving town to pursue his magical aspirations.

Years later Edward returns, now known as Eisenheim. One fateful night, the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) and his fiancee attend a performance. At this performance, Edward is reunited with Sophie, who happens to be betrothed to the crown prince. This is where the love triangle aspect enters the picture.

You know, I had high hopes for this. I was looking forward to seeing the tale of unrequited love played out on a grand scale, a story full of magic and intrigue. What we get is a story that has been seen many times before and has nothing new to offer. By the time the climax came around I was too bored to really care. There was no magic in the story, sure Eisenheim has a few tricks up his sleeve, but nothing that really captured the imagination.

The film was based off of the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist, I have not read the story, but I suspect that it is much more satisfying than the film. I really belive that this story works much better in the short form. I also believe that it could have been expanded to the feature length world, but it needs more meat to it. The story would have to be expanded, rather than stretched as it seems to have been.

What makes this a truly frustrating experience are the things that they got right. The cinematography looks beautiful, there is a sort of magic to the look and feel of the film, much credit to Dick Pope's work. Also, the music is also very good, again, credit to Philip Glass.

Then there is the acting, the acting was very good, given what they had to work with. Sadly, many characters were underwritten, and I do not feel I was given a true reason to care about them or their fate. Edward Norton excels in his understated stage presence, the matter of fact way he approaches his performance is a wonderful performance on its own. Jessica Biel also does some nice work, particularly in her scenes with Rufus Sewell, who seethes with an energy all his own. However, when you put Biel and Norton together, something seems lost, like they were phoning it in. Lastly there is Paul Giamatti, who turns in the best performance of the film. His portrayal of the inspector was excellent, he takes a character torn by his fascination with magic and his loyalty to the crown prince, which contributes to his slightly behind schedule discovery of what is truly going on. I was completely convinced by his work here.

In the end we have a movie that treads no new ground, the only difference between this and other tales of unrequited love is the inclusion og magic, which never felt truly integrated to the story, rather it was used a motivating plot device.

Bottomline. Good performances, look, and music, all in a film whose story does not deserve it. I truly wanted to like this, but the story just felt way too familiar. That familiarity sunk it in the end. Although it is still worth seeing for the acting and th music.

Mildly Recommended.
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