Film review: The Illusionist (2006, no spoilers)

I watched this film recently and I want to thank reader rq for recommending it, as it is certainly a good one. Like The Prestige (2006) and Now You See Me(2013),both of which I reviewed recently, this film is about magic and magicians but I found it to be far superior to the other two.

The main character is a magician with the stage name Eisenheim (Edward Norton) who lived in Hungary somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. A young boy from a poor peasant family, Eisenheim becomes enchanted with magic and by accident meets and falls in love with a Hungarian duchess (Jessica Biel). Of course, because of their different social backgrounds they are forcibly separated and he proceeds to travel the world learning magic, ending up finally in Vienna fifteen years later, performing to large crowds and attracting the attention of Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) to whom his childhood sweetheart is now betrothed. Sewell has dreams of overthrowing his father and, through his marriage to Biel, merging the Austrian and Hungarian nations.

The pacing of this film is slower than that of the other two, and it is less flashy. But the reasons why I liked this film better are that it has a good story, good acting, and characters that one cares about, which ultimately are the constituents of a good film. When those things are present, one does not really care much about even the magic or how the illusions are done and whether they are possible at all. When the story does not grip you, you tend to focus on those weaknesses and were the reasons that I found the other two films less satisfying, though entertaining. In this film, the magic is front and center but at the same time is merely the background to two narrative threads, the three-way tension involving Norton and Biel and Sewell, and a cat-and-mouse game between Norton and Paul Giamatti as the chief of police working for Sewell.

The acting is excellent with a wonderfully understated performance by Norton. Giamatti is superb as an ambitious officer seeking to use his connections and obedience to Sewell to advance his own career by being the agent of the Crown Prince’s vendetta against Norton while, as an amateur magician himself, he becomes increasingly intrigued and impressed by Norton’s skill and does not want to harm him and tries to warn him not to cross Sewell. It is the evolving dynamic between Norton and Giamatti that drives the film, even more than the love story between Norton and Biel.

I can highly recommend this film as good old-fashioned filmmaking. It is not fast-paced or action-filled but it kept me gripped throughout. Like the other two magic films, it is partly a mystery and there is a denouement at the end where the mystery aspect is explained but how the key illusion was carried out is not. But we are told repeatedly that it is a trick and not some kind of supernatural effect as the audiences believed. There are some clues that the trick is an optical illusion that Norton learned in China and for which he uses Chinese assistants, but in this film it was not important to know how the trick was actually done. I had enjoyed the storytelling and that was enough.

You can see the trailer here.

I saw the film on DVD but later discovered that for some reason a high quality version of the entire film is available free online.


  1. rq says

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! What you say about the characters is true: I even liked the Crown Prince, even though he’s not a particularly pleasant person – but it is possible to sympathise with him. And Norton’s performance, and his chemistry with Biel (and her performance), were both worth the slow pacing. It’s a big one on my re-watch list.

  2. mnb0 says

    “When the story does not grip you”
    It didn’t as it was predictable. I enjoyed the excellent acting though, which was the main reason I watched the entire movie. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel that excellent acting like this has become rare and not because young(er) actors are less skilled.
    It may also be because I’m a Francophile when it comes to movies. I immensely enjoy it when I as a spectator have hardly more information than the main characters. Three examples are

    (I’ve loved you so long has even a slower pace than The Illusionist; make sure you watch the original French version with English subtitles) and mainly from Italy:

  3. says

    I liked the film but thought it was a shame they took real illusions like Houdinis mechanical orange tree and Peppers ghost and digitally enhanced them. Mainly because they enhanced way beyond what was and is possible. Would have been excellent if they had done the real illusions as no reason to think the audience would be any less impressed at the time!

  4. M can help you with that. says

    It’s a bit unfair to compare The Illusionist to those other movies — the other ones didn’t have Edward Norton. (I’ve been a fan since, on a “random movies at home with friends” night, I watched American History X and Death to Smoochy back-to-back.) I agree with oolon, though, that I would have preferred to see the relevant illusions actually performed instead of computer-enhanced. (I’ll admit to a fondness for how brilliant some of the old-school illusions were, and how quickly they emerged after the relevant technologies, e.g. plate glass for Pepper’s Ghost, were invented.)

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