Judge Clark Douglas is not real, but rather an elaborate illusion created by Ricky Jay, who is standing right behind you.
Nothing is what it seems.
"My intention has only been to entertain, nothing more."
Facts of the Case
It's the early 1900s, and the mysterious Eisenheim (Edward Norton, Red Dragon) is wowing audiences in Vienna with his astonishing magic show. One evening, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, Dark City) attends one of Eisenheim's performances and allows his fiancée Sophie (Jessica Biel, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) to serve as a volunteer in Eisenheim's performance. Eisenheim discovers that Sophie is actually an old childhood friend. He still has intense feelings for her, and she for him. Leopold is quite upset when he learns of the connection between the two, and tasks Chief Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, Shoot 'Em Up) with proving that Eisenheim is a fraud and shutting his act down permanently.
When The Illusionist was released, it was afflicted with endless comparisons to Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (being released around the same time). It was an unlikely coincidence that two films about turn-of-the-century magicians would be released at the same time, so critics immediately began the task of determining which of the two was the better film. I confess, I engaged in these debates myself. However, as I look back on both films, the similarities between them are really only superficial. The Prestige is a cold, clever, plot-driven affair while The Illusionist is a warm, romantic, mood-driven film. Both movies cheat a little bit. Each deserves to be appreciated for what it is, and I happen to be very fond of what The Illusionist has to offer.
The film is, among other things, a meditation on the nature of illusion. When audiences see Eisenheim's tricks they are so astonished that they immediately begin to debate whether they are witnessing something scientifically explainable or entirely supernatural. Eisenheim makes no claims about being able to use "real magic," but he doesn't go out of his way to insist that it's all illusion. On another level, there are moments in the film when we wonder whether we're actually seeing something genuine or whether we're merely being deceived by the trickery of cinema. Which of the tricks are actually performed and which are made possible through CGI? To put on a magic show within the decidedly deceitful medium of cinema is a tricky proposition indeed; one which The Illusionist recognizes and exploits quite cleverly.
The film was directed by Neil Burger, whom I once expected might become one of the great cinematic stylists on the basis of this film. Then he made the perfectly ordinary road movie The Lucky Ones and dashed my hopes. Even so, The Illusionist has such a distinct look and feel, as the detailed recreation of early 20th Century Vienna is wrapped in the gloriously inviting golden glow of Dick Pope's cinematography (the filtering and flickering effects suggest that we're looking at a moving daguerreotype). Composer Philip Glass (a composer whose own musical style is often accused of being coldly intellectual) matches this look with one of his warmest scores; bringing a wonderfully theatrical sense of mystery to the proceedings.
The cast is just right. Edward Norton's slight accent, ominous Van Dyke, and melancholic eyes are perfect for Eisenheim, who is the film's most impenetrable yet most sympathetic character. Paul Giamatti is equally good as the audience surrogate, willing to do the unsavory tasks Leopold gives him but genuinely curious about Eisenheim's magic and respectful of his abilities. Giamatti's bewildered, delighted facial expressions rank among the film's most charmingly memorable images. I've never been a particularly big fan of Jessica Biel's acting, but she turns in a rather good performance this time around. She brings the blend of royalty and free-spirited passion the role needs. Finally, Rufus Sewell finds that tricky balance between menace and cowardice required for a villain of his sort.
This visually marvelous film receives a fine Blu-ray transfer, though some of the softness that is built into the cinematography prevents it from being the sort of immersive knockout it might have been. Still, detail is as strong as the film wants it to be. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, while blacks are reasonably deep. A couple of the darker scenes could use slightly better shadow delineation, but it's never bad enough to actually complain about. Those unfamiliar with the film should know that the flickering effect is also an artistic decision, not a transfer problem. Audio is strong as well, with a particular emphasis being placed on the Glass score. I did notice that the audio on this disc was a good deal quieter than on many of the other Blu-rays in my collection, as I had to raise the audio a few notches higher than usual to get the volume to a solid level. Still, it's all consistent, so once you adjust there will be no more need to play with the remote.
In terms of supplements, The Illusionist is getting the treatment of Misery, Out of Time, and a number of other Blu-ray releases: a Blu-ray disc containing only the film paired with the old DVD (which contains some special features). While I still insist that this is a remarkably lazy and unimpressive way to go about putting together a Blu-ray release, I suppose it's better than a flipper disc or than a set without any special features at all. On the DVD copy (just a repackage of the old release), you'll find an audio commentary with the director, two very brief featurettes than run less than five minutes combined, and a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two minor issues I have with the film. First, while Sewell's performance is perfectly effective, I think the character might have been more compelling if he had been given a bit more complexity. It seems that whenever we are given a film in which the hero has to steal the girl away from another guy, screenwriters have a tendency to make "the other guy" as much of a jerk as possible so that no one will feel any conflict. What if the Crown Prince had been a fundamentally decent, loving person who simply wasn't the true love of Sophie's life? Just a thought. Come to think of it, Sewell played precisely that sort of character in the otherwise underwhelming Tristan + Isolde. Some sort of karmic trade-off, I guess.
Also, breathlessly exciting as the revealing montage of the conclusion is, it does leave certain questions unanswered and doesn't fill a couple of plot holes. While this can be appreciated on one level as fitting with the enigmatic nature of illusion, on a more basic level it's a little bit frustrating.
Skillfully crafted and boasting fine performances from its cast, The Illusionist is a show worth experiencing. The Blu-ray release is fine, but there's no urgent need to upgrade from the DVD.
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