I hadn’t watched Neil Burger’s The Illusionist since it played theatrically in 2006, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked it somewhat better than I had on my original viewing. Oh, I still find Edward Norton’s performance distractingly over-intellectualized and unsympathetic in the way that only an Edward Norton performance can be (a drawback in a romantic film), and its mystery element is still about one-sixteenth as mysterious as it thinks it is. At the same time, Paul Giamatti’s performance is even more fascinating than I remembered, while Jessica Biehl proves that she’s worth better than I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007). Also, Philip Glass’ score might be the best he’s ever done. But overall, this is a filmmaker’s film.
What ultimately makes The Illusionist—a weirdly convoluted tale of a stage magician (Norton) using his trickery to reunite himself with his lost love (Biehl)—is Neil Burger’s filmmaking skill. Burger, along with cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy Turvy), has created a magnificent imagining of what a film made in the 19th century might have looked like, had the technical skills of 2006 been available then. The results are at once gorgeous and unusual. This doesn’t look like a period picture; it looks like a picture that might have been made in the late 1800s. Like the plot itself, the movie is a kind of conjuring trick—only a better one than the plot offers.