Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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The Illusionist

Film #168


In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing.

Year 1, Day 169

BEFORE: Today will feature a double-feature of magic films released in 2006 starting with the first one, The Illusionist. Released about two months before the second magic related film in 2006, and the next film today The Prestige, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton (last seen in Rounders), Paul Giamatti (last seen in The Hangover Part II), and Jessica Biel (who is new to the marathon). One of the reasons I’m very excited for today’s films is because I am fascinated with magic. For the past few years I’ve dabbled in magic myself, not very successfully I might add, and even took it upon myself to incorporate magic tricks into three of my classes this semester. So it’s with this perspective and just a general level of interest about these two similar films that I begin my viewing day.

AFTER: “Everything you have seen is an illusion; it’s a trick.” These words are said by Eisenheim (Edward Norton) a few times throughout The Illusionist. It is very much a film about magic and illusions but there’s also a more important story going on behind the scenes, Eisenheim’s love for the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel).

The strength of the film lies in it’s mystery. It is similar to films like The Usual Suspects or Sherlock Holmes except instead of investigation and puzzle solving, the mystery lies in the magic. Eisenheim performs a handful of tricks and illusions, each one with seemingly more improbability. When he’s a child you see him using sleight of hand to palm an object, one of the more simpler things to do and one of the first tricks a magician learns. But as the story progresses and Eisenheim matures, he moves on to larger and grander illusions. For the most part I was taken in by the tricks and was in as much awe and astonishment as the audiences in the film were. But a couple of the tricks were very clearly visual effects and not practical effects. Something like the Orange Tree, which is explained later on, was so clearly created using CGI instead of doing it practically that it just took me out of the moment and made me hyper-aware that I was watching a film.

As with most films, there’s usually an underlying story that drives the more showy element. In the case of The Illusionist it’s the love story that is responsible for and drives the magic. But while the love between the poor magician peasant and the wealthy noblewoman is introduced well (through the childhood flashback), it seems to be lacking later on. When Eisenheim and the Duchess are kids you can see the love between them and their desire to be with each other forever. But as adults, it just seems as if it’s a plot device that is being used to further the story and provide a conflict. That true love is supposed to still be there but I just don’t see it.

Despite some minor annoyances with the performance of the illusions and the portrayal of the love between Eisenheim and the Duchess, The Illusionist was a pretty solid film. The magic provided a lot of entertainment (and a very satisfying ending) and the love story, while a bit lacking and cliché at parts, provided some substance to the film. There are certainly areas for Christopher Nolan to improve upon in The Prestige coming up next, but Neil Burger has a good entry with The Illusionist.

RATING: 4 out of 5