review for The Illusionist on AllMovie

The Illusionist (2006)
by Cammila Collar review

As a movie about magic, The Illusionist is a deft and beautiful magic trick of its own, making you only too happy to follow its suave and alluring misdirection so that its glorious big finish can have its full effect. Don't be surprised if you find yourself hoping against hope that The Illusionist's conjurings are real -- both those of the script and those performed by star magician Ed Norton. The film inspires us, in a rather innocent and old-fashioned style, to be carried off by its charisma and theatricality. This works in contrast to the direction of another dark and mysterious film about turn-of-the-century magicians that was released in close proximity, The Prestige. Comparisons between the two films have remained unavoidable, but while the fevered hunt in The Prestige is for the answer to how the magician performs his trick, in The Illusionist, this question takes a very modest back seat to the enchantment of its romantic melodrama. It plays out like a Victorian Wilkie Collins novel, wrapping its truly authentic characters in a haunting layer of dark and delicious drama. Even Jessica Biel, who may not seem a perfect fit to play Norton's star-crossed lover/an Austrian duchess, plays her part with ease, as her surrounding cast provides such richness that the audience requires little more from her than her quite believable devotion to the politically unpopular title character. The balletic repetitions of Philip Glass' score are expertly interwoven with each mysterious moment, offering both suspense and revelation with such precision, you may be reminded of The Usual Suspects or Sea of Love, despite the horses and carriages. The Illusionist is spun out of the very same fabric that it presents to you: the material of theatrics. It will prompt you again and again, through lush attention to period detail and the graceful transcendence of its archetypical characters, to give into the desire to believe what you see -- and more often than not, it succeeds. Norton's brooding, melancholy romantic lead and Paul Giamatti's ebullient star detective are so appropriate and so well crafted that what might seem boring or clichéd in the hands of less accomplished actors becomes a masterful web of interaction that we can only catch a glimpse of in one bewitching setting: a dark theater.