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Nobody plans it, nobody likes it, but sometimes movies come in pairs. The same idea starts to percolate through the Hollywood ether, then crystallises in two places at once, so that Armageddon accompanies Deep Impact and Volcano begins to erupt just as Dante’s Peak starts smoking.
We’ve had two magician movies in just three months, Neil Burger’s dark, mysterious The Illusionist playing second fiddle (on these shores, at least) to Christopher Nolan’s equally dark and mysterious The Prestige. Both are based on literary sources, both focus on deranged rivalries, but only one of the two is destined to astound you... and it’s not this one.
To be fair, The Illusionist suffers by comparison with The Prestige: it really wants to be so much more than Nolan’s showy showstopper. Highlighting its cousin’s lack of substance, it ambitiously pirouettes around turn-of-the-century European social upheaval, occult mysticism and class war. It’s The Prestige re-imagined as a po-faced dissertation on Hapsburgera power politics.
Edward Norton brings pensive intensity to his role as Eisenheim, a brilliant stage illusionist whose forbidden childhood romance with Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel, gorgeous in a period frock) is rekindled when his stage act becomes the toast of 1900 Vienna. The couple plan to elope before her engagement to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) – but can a magician of even Eisenheim’s calibre manage such a vanishing act?
You can see why The Illusionist attracted Norton, an actor who likes some meat to sink his dramatic teeth into. Its central drama revolves around an understated power game between enigmatic Eisenheim, violent aristocrat Leopold and pragmatic police chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is charged with bringing the upstart conjurer to account.
Yet, ironically for something that was a passion project for its star, the finished story is strangely passionless. Norton plays Eisenheim as such an unknowable enigma that he borders on unlikeable. It’s left to Giamatti to inject humanity into the proceedings, his acidic, pompous rozzer filling in the emotional gaps and half-inching the entire movie.
Politics lurks in the margins of the film as Eisenheim’s stage show evolves from conjuring tricks to summoning the dead, each new illusion winning him the public’s admiration, much to Prince Leopold’s displeasure. Burger invokes grand themes – the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s first wobble; anti-Semitism; social repression – yet his bigger picture remains stillborn, deprived of the dramatic oxygen it needs to flourish.
It’s a reverse sleight of hand (what you get here is less than what you see) and not even Burger’s decision to pull a third-act rabbit out of the narrative hat can quite save it. For everyone who left The Prestige asking, “How did he do that?” The Illusionist delivers a disappointing answer: not like this...
Magic and love but not a lot of passion in this patchy period piece that could have been The Prestige's smarter cousin, yet trips over its own ambitions.