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.
Video and Audio:
MVD Entertainment continue their streak of catalogue re-releases with The Illusionist, a film with a tricky visual tempo that doesn't exactly yield itself to vast improvements with newer transfers, considering that it relies on deep shadows, intentionally warm/tan tones, and hazy shots. This transfer looks roughly the same in color tone and contrast balance as Fox's 2010 Blu-ray, adequately preserving the old-school silent-film aesthetic pursued by Neil Berger and cinematographer Dick Pope, though still framed at the "fuller" 1.78:1 aspect ratio. All the right colors from the palette still jump out -- the red cape, Jessica Biel's flushed cheeks, green and red stones in an ornate sword -- while strategic undersaturation of colors are appropriately balanced against normal saturation. MVD's transfer gains an edge in the realm of digital solidity and grain, as it comes across as tighter yet heavier and more pseudo film-like here, likely due to the elevated bitrate of the transfer; this one actually got up to 40mbps, whereas the older one hovers at 25. Unfortunately, the cohesiveness comes with a hindrance: on my disc and across multiple players, there was a pixilation glitch around the 12:20 mark, a brief but notable burst of digital faults that occurred each and every time playing the scene several times over. For a transfer that's only marginally superior to its predecessor, that's a hitch in the performance.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track sounds about the same as the original 5.1 HD presentation, and that's a good thing. There are a lot of absorbing little sound effects throughout The Illusionist, from the subtle twang of a blade being handed over to the clink of change on a stone ground and the rustling of hay in a horse stable, curiosities that sound splendid as they stretch into the front channels and ever-so carefully into the rear. More overtly, the clapping of an audience and the accompanying musical overtures fill the full breadth of the surround stage for the bigger, more immersive and splashier aspects of the track, aside from a surprise firearm blast late in the movie. Verbal delivery is suitable, though the audibility shows more restraint in certain scenes than I remember of it some years back; however, the crispness of intimate, close-quartered scenes remains sharp and pronounced, Paul Giamatti's low rumbling voice hits solid mid-range bass responsiveness, and Rufus Sewell's consistent yelling remains free of distortion. There are also easily accessible English and Spanish subtitles available here.
Under ideal circumstances, aside from the uptick in bitrate for the transfer, the extras department would be the biggest objective improvement for this MVD Marquee re-release of The Illusionist. Not because there's anything new -- it only comes with the Audio Commentary with Neil Berger (found in the "Setup" wing of the disc), a Making of The Illusionist (3:58, 16x9 HD) featurette, and Jessica Biel on The Illusionist (1:29, 16x9) -- but because the extras have been included on the Blu-ray disc itself instead of on a supplemental DVD. It's a small but noteworthy detail worth evaluating for this disc, had everything else been exactly the same.
Barring some digital effects that are starting to show their age a little bit, my opinion about The Illusionist remains intact after nearly a decade: it's a clever, emotionally absorbing mystery that boasts entrancing performances and an unassuming examination of themes about the subjectivity of reality, the structure of class, and striving for power. And for the most part, this Blu-ray from MVD Marquee would offer a suitable replacement for the Fox Blu-ray, if only for cohesiveness; the addition of the existing extras onto the new disc, instead of on a separate DVD, is a worthwhile touch. However, this review copy came with a glitch in the transfer that detracts from the viewing experience, and in such a tight race between discs that means quite a bit. Rent this disc to see the grain improvements, but hold off on buying it until word gets out that this isn't a widespread issue.