The Illusionist (2006)

Rating: B-

Dir: Neil Burger
Star: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell

You wait ages for a movie about a turn-of-the-century magician with a grudge, and then two come along at once. This one just pipped The Prestige by a month, and pits Eisenheim (Norton) against Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell) for the love of Sophie (Biel), who was Eisenheim’s childhood sweetheart. When the two meet again, she is already engaged to the Crown Prince, but it’s clear that the spark is still there, and Leopold unleashes his pet policeman (Giamatti), to bring down Eisenheim. Tragedy ensues, and the heir apparent discovers that hell hath no fury like a magician scorned – especially one whose talents apparently border on the supernatural, and who also now has very little to live for, so really doesn’t give a damn who he irritates, offends or accuses.

The effectiveness of this one hinges on the performances, though the magical illusions Eisenheim presents occasionally make a mark of their own – albeit one reduced by the awareness of potential cinematic trickery. Norton and Giamatti are the standouts here, the latter in particular bringing a surprising humanity to the role as a lackey who has to obey the prince’s orders, regardless of his personal feeling. Witness his response when Eisenheim asks if he is completely corrupt: “No, not completely.” In contrast, Sewell might as well be twirling a wax mustache and Biel is a clothes-horse, albeit one that’s easy on the eye.

The film features a twist at the end, which might make more sense if you were looking for it; Burger shovels in the flashbacks to show us the clues that we (probably) missed, but it feels too rushed. It’s like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, then stuffing the creature back in there again, before the audience has had enough of a chance to take in what was done. I’m not entirely convinced, yet certainly still applaud the basic concept.