A surefire sign of a good film is one that has the ability to sweep the viewer up in its story and characters, allowing him or her to forget their surroundings for the length of the running time. If a movie can do this, and give the viewer a reason to care about what is on the screen, then the filmmakers have done their job. Regrettably, "The Illusionist" is not one of these films. A period drama that uses a magical backdrop to spin the tale of a dangerous love-triangle, it is watched from the outside looking in. Some visually striking images and a few strong performances simply cannot make up for a motion picture where there is no detectable emotional connection stirred between the audience and the conflicts of the characters, nor much chemistry between the actors to begin with. It doesn't exactly help that the tricks up writer-director Neil Burger's sleeve are pat and immediately predictable, draining the energy out of a plot that requires that one not know what is going to happen next.
As teenagers, cabinetmaker's son Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) and aristocrat Sophie (Eleanor Tomlinson) shared an ill-fated love affair ripped apart by their differing class status. Fifteen years later, circa 1900, an adult Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has begun to take Vienna by storm with his awe-inspiring illusionist acts. A chance encounter with the matured and beautiful Sophie (Jessica Biel) occurs when she is chosen from the audience to volunteer for one of his tricks. The undeniably powerful romantic bond between them is still very much alive and well, but their happiness is threatened once more when it becomes clear her cold and calculating beau, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), would rather Sophie be dead than have her turn her back on him.
"The Illusionist" has some eye-catching sequences, including a faded, sepia-toned flashback to Eisenheim's and Sophie's early days together that sumptuously looks like it might have been shot in the late 1800s. Individual images are also indelible, such as a wall in Leopold's lair overstuffed with antlers and deer heads that creepily encapsulates his misanthropic nature. The woodsy exteriors, aided by its on-location Czech Republic lensing, offset their tranquility with a foreboding sense of danger. The calculating story that "The Illusionist" tells, however, holds no such scrutiny. Slow-moving and limited in scope, the film writer-director Neil Burger has made seems more suited for cable than theatrical exhibition, where the lack of depth in its characters and obvious plotting would prove easier to forgive. Only the memorably grand and sweeping music score by Philip Glass (2004's "Secret Window
") that accompanies the proceedings suggests that its home is on the big screen.
The scenes shared between Eisenheim and Sophie in the first hour are the picture's best, as they discover that the flame between them hasn't been dimmed by their years apart. This is in no small part due to the revelatory performance from Jessica Beil, who has been typecast in recent years as a tough action heroine in 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" and 2004's "Blade: Trinity
." As Sophie, Beil slides with ease into the comparatively reserved part of a turn-of-the-century debutante, able to speak volumes with her eyes and facial expressions even when she isn't talking. Her plight in deciding how she will be able to escape the clutches of Leopold in exchange for a happy ending with Eisenheim is the film's most arresting element. When Biel's screen time lessens in the second half, her absence is felt; indeed, she is the heart of the movie for which everything else revolves.
The other performances are a mixed bag, all of them uniformly adequate but at the mercy of dreary, underwritten roles. As the malicious Leopold, Rufus Sewell (2006's "Tristan and Isolde
") isn't stretching much, but he plays the antagonist so convincingly and with such vigor that it's easy to see why he often gets cast as such. Paul Giamatti is a chameleonic actorhis work as Chief Inspector Uhl is nothing at all like the stuttering, low-key apartment superintendent he portrayed in "Lady in the Water
"but isn't given anything of note to do as he virtually becomes a spectator to the events happening around him. By far the weakest turn comes from Edward Norton (2003's "The Italian Job
"), whose Eisenheim the Illusionist is a dullard. Norton is the leadhe is in almost every sceneand yet there is such a lack of charisma and conviction in his take on the character that he threatens to sink the whole enterprise, including the all-important romance between Eisenheim and Sophie.
"The Illusionist" falls into the unsavory camp of being a take-it-or-leave-it experience. Without the efforts of Jessica Biel, the love story would hold zero weight, while one's involvement during the second half relies on not knowing where the story is headed. It all leads up to one of those ham-fisted scenes where a revelation is unveiled through a character's remembrance of dialogue spoken and things that have happened earlier on. Besides being readily apparent long before the final scenes rear their ugly head, the way in which director Neil Burger chooses to make the reveal is neglectfully unoriginal and has been carried out in precisely the same fashion countless times before. "The Illusionist" is not without its aesthetic merits and the occasional effective piece of acting, but the territory the film chooses to cover feels ragged and trivial.