While it might have made a good short, as a feature film “The Illusionist” comes across like a magician whose tricks are transparent. The most insight the film provides is that turn-of-the-century Vienna looks pretty.
Edward Norton plays a magician who, as a young peasant child, fell in love with a duchess (Jessica Biel) whose family was too noble to have a daughter involved with the lower class. So the lovers were torn apart, until years later, when the great illusionist now known as Eisenheim is performing to rave reviews in sold-out theaters. But that isn’t enough for him to reclaim his love, who is promised to a scoundrel prince (Rufus Sewell) as part of his plot for power.
Paul Giamatti co-stars as the prince’s chief of police, who is also a bit of an amateur magician and is just as interested in what he can find out about Eisenheim’s tricks as he is about doing the prince’s dirty work.
It doesn’t take an expert critic like myself to point out that Norton and Giamatti are fabulous actors, but neither of them have a whole lot to do. Of the two, Giamatti manages to make more of an impression, despite having the supporting role, because his character at least has some humor and personality and has to make a personal and moral decision. Eisenheim, however, basically spends the whole film looking kind of grumpy and being a bit of a dick to the d******d prince.
There’s not really much of a romance to believe in, and the film’s drive for a twist creates a rather large problem (on top of the problem that it’s entirely predictable). The actors aren’t really allowed to perform their true emotions due to the attempted slight of hand. Unlike magic, cinematic storytelling sometimes requires that the audience know some secrets in order for the emotions to resonate.