The Illusionist

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Illusionist at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 25, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Mystery Fantasy
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biehl, Rufus Sewell
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “The Illusionist

  1. Ken Hanke

    You spelled “Jessica Biel” wrong.

    Hey, at least I said nice things about her.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Actually, I said nice things about her in the original review, so it’s a second.

    Look at it this way, I could’ve accidentally called her Jessica Alba. Now, that would’ve been inexcusable.

  3. Chad Nesbitt

    There is a scene where a stage coach being lead by a team of black horses and driven by a man in a in a black top hat. Do you know what I’m talking about? The camera slowly moves in as the stage coach pulls into frame. The city architecture is just out of focus in the back ground. The scene is shot as if the camera man is sitting on the side walk looking up at the coach and horses.

    This is the type of photography that made this movie genius not to mention the musical score.

    One of the most original plots and well shot movies ever made. You are right.
    I felt like I was in that time period. First movie I have seen where the director could truly take a photograph of a particular time period and bring it to life.

    Other movies that would come close to this type of photography –
    The Untouchables
    The God Father II

    Maybe – Tombstone or
    Dracula the 1979 version with Frank Langella

    Chad Nesbitt

  4. Ken Hanke

    Do you know what I’m talking about?

    Yes, I do. There are many wonderful compositions in the film. What always stands out for me is the tracking shot of Paul Giamatti coming down the hallway with all those antlers mounted on the walls.

  5. Jeffrey DeCristofaro

    In my opinion, this is one of the best films I’ve seen – one of the films I put on my top ten of 2006 along with others like PAN’S LABYRINTH (which, just like in your column, was also #1 and one of my favorites). While it may not have matched the level of PAN’S LABYRINTH, it didn’t need to, and I actually felt that the same level of cinematic magic was present here (especially when exploring how a film was made or could have been made back then). The performances were also good, and while the chemistry between Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton helped to carry the show, Jessica Biel’s performance is not to be overlooked (I was happy to hear all the good things you said about her, as I am a die hard fan of her work). Do you think she’ll ever find another movie to equal or surpass this? (So far, the only other great ones I can think of that she was in are ULEE’S GOLD and THE RULES OF ATTRACTION.)

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