Drenched in sepia tones and flickering like a relic of Thomas Edison's first filmmaking ventures, Neil Burger's The Illusionist has the unfortunate task in competing against another turn-of-the-century magic story released in its year, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. Nolan's film stylishly weaves through a labyrinth of dark tones and twisted motives, while planting Batman himself, Christian Bale, in a cutthroat love triangle between X-Men actor Hugh Jackman and sultry Scarlett Johansson. Aside from the late-1800s setting, however, the two films couldn't be more different; Burger's loose adaptation of Steven Millhauser's story "Eisenheim The Illusionist" relies on straightforward storytelling for its mysterious account, relishing in distended, warm lighting while reaching back to childhood memories for its emotional impact. And, amid magnetic performances and astonishing photography, it's a mystical gem that's as good -- if not better -- than its coexistent rival.
At first, we focus on the emblazoned eyes of Eisenheim, played by American History X's Edward Norton, as an audience focuses on his concentrated posture in the middle of a dusty stage. With a rising of the hand, he enacts what could be seen as evoking the ghost of the dead, as a wispy apparition forms next to him. This puts the wheels in motion for Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who was sitting in the crowd, to arrest Eisenheim for fraudulent behavior. Uhl's report of the arrest and what he knows of Eisenheim, told to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), begins the actual flow of storytelling in The Illusionist, taking us back to the magician's childhood as he (in an early performance from Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson), a carpenter's son, develops a relationship with an horse-riding, aristocratic debutante named Sophie, while learning simple illusions after bumping into a street magician. After society pries their blossoming relationship apart, Eisenheim traverses the world in search of knowledge of his craft.
Throughout this "flashback" sequence, Neil Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope, who also photographed Mike Leigh's first-rate film Naked, employ an old-fashioned yet voguish visual aesthetic to give The Illusionist a signature look. Overextension of a film stock's flickering and the lavish use of vignetting -- a photographic technique used to constrict focus by darkening elements in our periphery -- gussy up the mood, giving it a vintage veneer where it looks like a candle's being held to the image. The embellished artistry reaches its highest point when we're watching the young romance between Eisenheim and Sophie, flickering like memories being held onto by those remembering them, while contracting as needed once we approach more readily-memorable points in Inspector Uhl's account of Eisenheim's history. Something about the quaint, old-photograph cinematography adds a layer of artistry to Burger's film, while only intermittently distracting with immoderate usage.
As appealing as seeing how the magician learned his tricks in "the Orient" would've been, the story catches up to its current setting for the core of The Illusionist's mystery, where Eisenheim has become a renowned performer in Vienna -- and, after a high-profile performance, begins communicating with his once-lost Sophie (Jessica Biel), now a Dutchess under the thumb of vile Prince Leopold. Edward Norton commands the stage as Eisenheim, giving lofty orations about the essence of nature, ethereal existences, and mortality, while transforming gloves into birds and sparking an orange tree to grow. These sequences show Norton's commanding talent as a chameleon, yet not in the fashion you'd expect; he's more subdued here than as the brash white supremacist in AHX or as the world-weary insomniac in Fight Club, crafting a posh-goateed performer that's well-traveled and perceptive on a very down-key level. Watching him dance around his secrets of the trade with the authorities, while tossing humorous banter back-and-forth with his money-driven manager (rightly played by Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes), an actor tailor-made for this period), charismatically transposes us into the middle of Eisenheim's mystifying wiles.
Though Norton jibes well with Rufus Sewell as the villainous, out-for-answers Leopold, and with Jessica Biel as the older iteration of Sophie in what's easily her best role to date, it's his prickly rapport with Paul Giamatti as the diligently hardheaded Inspector Uhl that commands our attention. A gruff, old-fashioned tone about Giamatti's voice enhances the inspector's depth, while his pragmatic curiosity about the secrets of illusion and his steadfast loyalty to upholding the law become captivating facets to what'll eventually become a focused whodunit. Watching him slither around with his inquiries, selling the tough-as-nails inspector with both matter-of-factness and curiosity, actually becomes the driving factor behind The Illusionist's scheming. His recount of the activities, and Burger's stringent filmmaking and control over his actors projects that exact tone -- slightly distanced from Eisenheim's secrets, leaving us as observers. Matching Norton and Giamatti is a genius move on Burger's part.
Once Sophie unavoidably re-enters the picture and Eisenheim begins a risky parlay with answer-seeker Prince Leopold, The Illusionist develops into a blend of romance and mystery that burns slowly at first, but quickly flares up into an intriguing yarn of rekindled love, cloak-and-dagger escape, and cunningly far-fetched magic. The nature of Eisenheim's talent becomes a stirring element throughout, confusing the authorities -- and us, as a modern-age audience -- as to the actuality of his skill. Though we witness Eisenheim teach Inspector Uhl a simple trick in his tool-laden workshop, one that uses simple biology as a springboard, the things which he can do on-stage are other-worldly in nature and not easily explained by the laws of physics and machinery. We come to a realization about the tricks before us, concocted with strategically-budget CG: Eisenheim might be, likely is, using real magic.
That's ultimately left up to our own speculation, which could, if desired, be answered in the ways that the investigators attempt to answer Eisenheim's talent: with smoke, mirrors, wire, lights, and mechanics. As the mysteries conclude in a slurry of connective retorts and vis-à-vis pondering, with clues planted both visibly and inconspicuously, it's hard not to feel thoroughly enveloped in the web of supernatural confusion. Whether the answers satisfy a pragmatist's curiosity or not become unimportant, as it's all about the manner in which Neil Burger enacts the connection of dots in the film's spry third act. The Illusionist excels in that regard amid a lavish visual tone and marvelous dramatic integrity, coming together into a striking film that plays up its period-bound allures with precision. It's all about storytelling, and we're told a clever, affecting tale here.
Fox's Blu-ray of The Illusionist arrives in a standard dual-disc package, presented here in a eco-friendly case. Disc One contains nothing more than the high-definition film, while Disc Two contains a standard-definition version of the film with a few supplements. Note that the Blu-ray doesn't even have a selection menu, quickly moving on to the film once the disc has loaded up.
Video and Audio:
Neil Burger and Dick Pope's visualization of The Illusionist is a lavish affair, one that's been doctored with flickering and black gradients to reflect something akin to a silent film. As beautiful as it can be, it's not one ideal for exemplifying the breadth of Blu-ray technology. However, the nature of the high-definition medium comes in preserving the film as it was shown in theaters, and this 1.78:1 1080p AVC encode phenomenally echoes the impressions left after screening the film on the big-screen -- which can be a really stunning experience, especially as projected on this (single-layer) Blu-ray disc.
Color has been reduced in the palette to enhance the sepia-toned color timing, though some palatable elements -- the deep red in Jessica Biel's cloak during the first pivotal illusion, the flush in her cheeks, the crisp green and red of jewels from a sword -- sustain a quality of eye-catching pop that can't be ignored. The contrast fluctuations in the film's visual tricks are spot-on, preserving inky blacks and satisfying fades from color to darkness. Upon a bit of inspection, the image does lean a bit softer than what'd be appreciated, while a few scattered light speckles and debris can be spotted. However, these imperfections add to Burger's intended demeanor, which still comes across in a succulent, pleasing fashion within its 24fps flow.
The DTS HD Master Audio takes a similar approach, as it emphasizes the film's real drawing aural force -- Philip Glass' score. It sounds marvelous in this high-definition track, grasping at all corners of the surround stage with vigor. Also arriving through the surround channels, sounds of a crowd in a theater, the crisp galloping of hooves, and the echoing potency of a surprising shotgun blast spread out in pristine fashion. What's impressive is the enunciation of dialogue, remaining balanced and pleasing from Giamatti's gruffness to Biel's delicate alto-centered tone. It's a very good track that cradles a proper sound design, even though there's not a lot to boast about in regards to activity. Disappointingly, no subtitles have been offered, while English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks accompany the high-definition audio.
Here's where Fox's Blu-ray disappoints. Included from the previous DVD are a Feature Audio Commentary from Neil Burger, a Making of The Illusionist Featurette (3:59, 4x3), and another featurette entitled Jessica Biel on The Illusionist (1:29, 4x3) -- yet they're all included on the second disc, which happens to be, well, the original 2006 DVD. Incorporating that disc into the package is a welcome addition, but the lack of availability to listen to the commentary track with the high-definition rendering of the film, let alone no new extras at all, doesn't help to justify the investment.
When it comes to storytelling, The Illusionist does an exceptional job at crafting a mystery that unswervingly toys with being both practical and supernatural. Equipped with a compelling visual style and expectedly superb performances from Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, along with a surprise in Jessica Biel, it'll lock in your attention and slowly burn with a mysterious core until its grand reveal at the end. Though the film itself receives one of my highest stamps of approval, this Fox Blu-ray lackadaisically neglects to include any extra features -- or to, at least, slap the already-available features onto the Blu-ray disc itself. It certainly looks and sounds excellent, but the blandness of the rest of the presentation only earn this package a Recommendation for the high-definition quality of Neil Burger's involving film.