Movie Review: The Illusionist

Earlier this year, we saw The Prestige on DVD. That movie, based on Christopher Priest’s novel, was cold, cold, cold, but also had delights such as a cameo by David Bowie, and a chilling last image. However, the female characters were cardboard constructions moved around the board by the magicians. It was the kind of film that, due to amazing cinematography and some good acting by the male leads, held your attention while watching it, but faded from memory soon thereafter.

Now we’ve seen The Illusionist, based on a novella by Seven Millhauser, and it’s really about the same in quality, but on the warm end of the spectrum. Edward Norton plays the illusionist, separated from his aristocratic childhood friend, only to find her again in Vienna, on the verge of marrying a psychotic idiot who plans to overthrow his father, the emperor.

The tricks on display in The Illusionist are a lot more fun and imaginative than the ones in The Prestige, but there’s also no real attempt to explain how they’re done–including supposed “raising of the dead”–and thus it’s a lot easier to go wild.

After the psychotic idiot murders the illusionist’s love, the movie starts to go downhill, despite an amazing performance by Paul Giamatti as the police inspector, torn between doing his duty and wanting to stay on the good side of the aristocracy.

Why, do you ask, does it go south so quickly? Because in any movie called The Illusionist, it is only normal to be suspicious of what you’re seeing on the screen (I guessed the plot twist about 30 seconds after they put it in motion). Further, without giving away the plot, every last thing the illusionist puts in motion is pulled off perfectly, which, ultimately, is boring and unrealistic. Finally, a scene near the end with the police inspector on a train station platform grinning maniacally as he puts the pieces together isn’t exactly convincing.

The Illusionist is the fairytale version of the colder The Prestige. Both movies are flawed. Both could use a shot of whatever the other is drinking. Somewhere in the middle lies a perfect movie.


  1. says

    I agree, although I enjoyed both movies. The acting really made these films, especially Giamatti, who can do no wrong (but I haven’t seen Fred Claus yet).

  2. James says

    Before I watched this movie, a heterosexual female friend said her main takeaway from the film was a scene that showed what a perfect ass Jessica Biel had. So the whole time I watched, I kept waiting for some astonishing moment of perfect pulchritude that seemed destined never to arrive, since Ms. Biel spends almost all her time in flowing dresses that while lovely, don’t accent the particular feature in question. Just as the movie was ending and I was near to turning it off, there it was–a two second shot of Jessica in riding pants.

    It’s amazing how much money and talent can be poured into a project that results in something so mediocre that two inconsequential seconds are all that someone remembers. Then again, it’s amazing that film can leave such lasting memories of what’s supposed to be a throwaway image.

    Have you read Millhauser, by the way? I think he’s fantastic, although I’ll grant that there’s a repetitious quality that becomes apparent when you read all his work.

  3. says

    Yeah–I don’t regret having seen the movies, but I really thought the potential in both cases for a classic was thwarted–and I’m not sure if the source material is to blame, or what.


  4. Robert Devereux says

    When I saw The Prestige, I figured out the plot twists before they happened. They gave enough clues to guess before things were revealed. The result was something that made me feel good about figuring out the puzzle, but left little desire to watch it again. I wouldn’t object to it if somebody played in while I was visiting.

    The Illusionist tried to have puzzles, but everything seemed obvious from the first five minutes. There were no surprises and the attempts at cleverness were so inept, so I felt bored by it. I was pure schmaltz, and I had no desire to watch it again. I’d leave the room rather than watch it again.

  5. says

    My biggest trouble with both movies is that the “illusions” were all obviously Hollywood SFX. Which really spoiled the effect for me. Hollywood can do anything with onscreen trickery these days, so these movies about magicians were more or less playing without a net.

  6. says

    I have both of these movies on my shelf at home, but I’ve yet to commit to watching either. I suppose now that I’ll know which one to start with first.

  7. says

    I’m going to have to disagree with you mightily on the subject of The Prestige. Cold the film may be — like all of Christopher Nolan’s films — but it works on so many levels that you need to watch it two or three times before you even fully realize what Nolan’s trying to pull off. Forget all the tricks and the surprises; the movie is much, much more interesting after you don’t have those distractions. But yeah, you’re right, the female characters were pretty lifeless.

    My reaction to The Illusionist was twofold: (1) They went to all the trouble of that beautiful cinematography just for that pitiful story? (2) Spare us from your titanic ego, Edward Norton. You simply don’t have the presence to hold an entire movie together on your charm alone.

  8. says

    Having been an amateur magician when I was a teenager I’ve always been exasperated by movie disregard for the integrity of stage illusions. So I enjoyed The Prestige at first, since it seemed to respect the mechanics more than usual. I eventually lost patience with the preposterous premise which wants you to accept that an invention which would change human history would be reduced to supporting a petty feud.

    That feud was dull in the end; who cares about these unpleasant characters and their squabble? The Illusionist for me was a far more rounded film despite playing fast and loose with the stage stuff. Very well made, I loved all the street scenes (Prague standing for Vienna). A shame we didn’t get to see Edward Norton’s ass but you can’t have everything, can you?

  9. says

    The Illusionist is the fairytale version of the colder The Prestige. Both movies are flawed. Both could use a shot of whatever the other is drinking. Somewhere in the middle lies a perfect movie.

    And that movie is MAGIC, staring Anthony Hopkins.