Director Neil Burger is a relative unknown. To date he has only directed one other feature film, Interview With An Assassin, a fictional account of the real shooter of the JFK assassination, which I had the chance of watching it on DVD some time back. Comparing production values, it's a great leap forward for Burger, having now directed a movie starring heavyweight character actors Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti.
Adapted from a short story by writer Steven Millhauser called Eisenheim the Illusionist, this movie made its debut at last year's Sundance Film Festival, and was supposed to have premiered locally at around the same time as Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. However, I suspect that distributors might have thought the pairing of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, excellent actors in their own right, would find it tough against competition in Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, who in today's context, are instantly recognizable and appealing because of their successful comic book movie roles in Batman and X-Men respectively.
In reality, comparing The Illusionist to The Prestige is comparing apples to oranges. The only similarities they share are their occupation - practitioners of magic, and coupled with immense knowledge of science and technology. Although period movies, they share similar eras, but are based in separate locations - this one in Vienna, the other in London. At its core, The Prestige is one solid movie about obsession and revenge, but The Illusionist is surprisingly, for all its moodiness displayed in the trailer, it's all about love.
Edward Norton is Eisenheim, top illusionist whom some say he dabbles in the dark arts and sold his soul to the devil. Watching what he could do, you'll probably be more inclined to agree. After having lost his love due to a difference in class, he meets up with Sophie (Jessica Biel) again, although this time she's about to get engaged to Austrian Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Hence the dilemma, and now, an opportunity to try and get his girl.
It's a beautifully filmed movie, and I marvel at the cinematography and techniques to date this movie to the early silent movie era. The production values are top notch, with costumes, makeup and special effects which, though simple, deserve special mention as they just worked brilliantly to enhance the viewing experience. The magic here is "magic" in that sense of the word, and doesn't try to obsess itself with trying to explain the plausibility behind every trick. And yes, there are more magic here, if that's your cup of tea (though of course, aided by cinematic movie making tricks).
But what I thought really did the trick (pardon the pun), was Paul Giamatti's character Chief Inspector Uhl, as the man caught in the middle of a moral dilemma. Through his eyes, we see the corruption of those in power, and when put in a position where you are reliant on that power, how it could serve to confuse, whether to betray your values for material wealth and status, or to do what is right. Edward Norton is not as muted here as his other movie also now showing in Singapore - The Painted Veil, and although his Eisenheim is strictly focused on his goals, his intense fixation somehow diluted the complexity of his character somewhat. Jessica Biel unfortunately is the weak link here, as is Rufus Sewell as he struggles through his yet-another-villain role which doesn't offer much range besides snarling and being nasty.
Before you pass judgement during the movie's plot development as being too simplistic if compared to The Prestige's, I'd say to hold that thought, and to pay close attention. It's a mixture of drama, mystery and romance, and when all's revealed at the end, somehow it'll just bring a smile to your face, especially so if you're a romantic.
I like The Illusionist!