Unlock the mysteries of the year's most spellbinding film from the producers of Crash and Sideways! Oscar® nominees Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton lead an all-star cast in this "stunning" film (USA Today) that conjures an exhilarating blend of suspense, romance and mind-bending twists. The acclaimed illusionist Eisenheim (Norton) has not only captured the imaginations of all of Vienna, but also the interest of the ambitious Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). But when Leopold's new fiancé (Jessica Biel) rekindles a childhood fascination with Eisenheim, the Prince's interest evolves into obsession...and suddenly the city's Chief Inspector (Giamatti) finds himself investigating a shocking crime. But even as the Inspector engages him in a dramatic challenge of wills, Eisenheim prepares for his most impressive illusion yet in this "mesmerizing" (Entertainment Weekly) and "beautifully acted" (Good Morning America) film that "teases you until the very end!" (The New York Times).
In filmmaking, as in magic, timing is critical. When a magician performs a sleight-of-hand trick, the illusion won't have quite the same impact if the dove doesn't fly out of his sleeve just as he gestures for the big reveal. A few seconds too late, and the audience's awe turns to skepticism and disdain. Likewise, all the hard work a filmmaker pours into his project can be easily thrown into jeopardy if the studio releases it at the wrong time into an unreceptive market. One of the biggest follies in this regard is to premiere a film in close proximity to another movie on the same subject. When that happens, the audience's attention is divided, and typically either one film will greatly overwhelm the other or both will underperform at the box office. Somehow, this happens time and again in the industry -- two asteroid-disaster movies, two volcano movies, two movies about the O.K. Corral, two CGI animated movies about talking ants -- all released head-to-head, and for what gain?
The Fall of 2006 brought us the battle of the dueling magician movies: Christopher Nolan's star-powered 'The Prestige' with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, versus Neil Burger's small-scale independent production 'The Illusionist'. Both are period-piece mystery thrillers about famed stage magicians caught in webs of murderous intrigue. Nolan's film arrived with waves of buzz that largely transmuted into disappointment and anger from audiences who felt cheated by its deus-ex-machina plot twist in the final reel. Burger's film, meanwhile, faced lower expectations and enjoyed a healthy run in limited release, generally leaving its viewers satisfied. In terms of raw numbers, 'The Prestige' outgrossed 'The Illusionist' $53 million to $40 million, but relative to their original budgets the smaller film was considered the greater success.
Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim the Illusionist, a renowned performer on tour through early 20th Century Europe. A stop in Vienna finds his long-lost childhood sweetheart (Jessica Biel, far too young to be Norton's contemporary) engaged to a politically-ambitious and hot-tempered prince (Rufus Sewell) not much impressed by Eisenheim's act. Believing himself a master of deception, the magician initiates a dangerous affair with the girl right under the nose of the prince, who, ever paranoid and suspicious, has already ordered his Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) to keep tabs on the man. The Inspector happens to be an amateur magician fascinated by Eisenheim's show, and is left morally conflicted by his admiration for the illusionist and the orders given by his abusive employer. This all leads to murder, revenge, and perhaps a surprising revelation or two.
In the final analysis, 'The Illusionist' boils down to a rather simple mystery story with a central plot twist that is clever but not entirely unforeseeable. It lacks the philosophical depth of the more intellectually ambitious 'Prestige'. On the other hand, its plot machinations are always logical and consistent; even those caught off guard will likely feel that its final reveal is less of a cheat. Personally, I found 'The Prestige' a very flawed film, but one that holds up better to repeated viewings once some of the initial disappointment has worn off and its secrets can be explored in greater detail. I don't know that there's much more to 'The Illusionist' that can't be discovered in the first viewing, but what it has going for it are an appealingly stylized period atmosphere and strong performances from the cast.
I enjoyed both of the competing magician movies. Neither one entirely trapped me in its spell, but they each provided a solid night of entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The American home video distribution rights to 'The Illusionist' are held by Fox, who haven't yet announced any Blu-ray plans for it. However, the film was released on the format in Italy by a studio called Eagle Pictures. The packaging doesn't specify region coding, but the feature film portion of the disc is Region A compatible. However, the bonus features are encoded in PAL format and will not fully work in an American Blu-ray player. The movie will play fine, but the supplements won't.
The disc contains traditional DVD-style menus in Italian text that shouldn't be too difficult for an English speaker to navigate. There are no interactive pop-up menus.
'The Illusionist' has very stylized cinematography designed to emulate silent films and period photographs. The color palette has been intentionally desaturated and is dominated by burnished hues and amber flesh tones. In addition, the flashback sections of the narrative go a few steps further by adding deliberate flicker and iris edges. With that in mind, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio) provides a very faithful viewing experience. The movie was never meant to have that "through a window" crystal clarity of material shot on HD video. It's meant to have an aged, old-timey appearance, which is captured well here.
Despite the diffuse photography, the High Definition transfer has a very nice sense of textural detail, with close-ups quite revealing of skin pores and facial hair. The contrast range is also well replicated in solid black levels and good shadow detail. Mild film grain is present and appears accurate, neither excessively noisy nor DNR'ed into oblivion. Some very faint banding artifacts are visible in subtle color gradients, but are rarely distracting. No edge enhancement or digital compression problems caught my eye.
Sadly, the Italian Blu-ray offers no high-resolution audio options to go with its High Definition video. The movie's original English language soundtrack is presented in basic Dolby Digital 5.1 (the disc also has an Italian dub that adds an EX flag, but the studio didn't even bother that much with the English track). While this is certainly a disappointment, the results are generally acceptable.
The Philip Glass score has a reasonable amount of swell, though it doesn't often feel like it fills the room. The dialogue channel is also a little bright. The track has a moderate amount of bass and fair surround envelopment. There's nothing in the soundtrack that stands out as exceptionally poor, but by the same token it never rises to the level of clarity and fidelity offered by the better high-res tracks available on Blu-ray.
Optional Italian subtitles or Italian SDH captions can be disabled through the main menu.
Bonus features on the American DVD release of the film were pretty sparse. Nonetheless, only one of the features has made its way to this Blu-ray edition.
Perhaps not quite as clever as it wants to be, 'The Illusionist' is nonetheless a largely satisfying mystery thriller with an appealing cast and an intriguing concept. The import Blu-ray has fine picture quality, but just-acceptable audio and bonus features that won't function in an American player. The movie doesn't seem to be on Fox's Blu-ray radar at the moment. Fans will find the Italian disc worth importing despite some shortcomings.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.