Two master artisans in a duel of skill. That was the plot of the other outstanding 2006 film about magic, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. In a way, it’s also very much at the heart of The Illusionist, Neil Burger’s elegant tale of romance, power, and hocus-pocus. Here, it’s not a face-off between competing tricksters that powers the plot, but a showdown between two virtuoso thespians. Norton plays Eisenheim, a slick Austrian conjurer whose genius — and love for a beautiful aristocrat (Jessica Biel) — threatens the ambitions of the boorish prince (Rufus Sewell). Giamatti is Chief Inspector Uhl, the prince’s henchman charged with debunking Eisenheim’s chicanery. On screen, the two Oscar-nominated character actors circle each other in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse that reminds the director of the memorable sit-down between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. While they don’t possess the cinematic gravitas of those acting Godfathers, watching them operate is to appreciate two distinct but equally brilliant acting styles. ”Edward is…very precise in the way that he works. The way he sets up where he’s going to be. What he’s going to do. It’s all very controlled in a good way,” Burger says in his commentary. ”Paul is perhaps more from the gut. It’s organic in a different way. He gives it a go. Shoots from the hip.”
If only the two Elis (both Norton and Giamatti graduated from Yale) deigned to discuss the synthesis of their scenes. Their relative absence from the extras — only six minutes! — is a most regrettable disappearing act.
The film, however, stands on its own. In addition to the stellar performances (which include Sewell’s seething, contemptuous heir), the sepia-tinted cinematography — some scenes were illuminated with gaslights — gives the film the classic look and feel of an earlier age, underlined by old-fashioned iris fade-outs, where the screen goes dark except for a circle around one character. Moreover, like an astounding stratagem, The Illusionist thrills even after you learn the secret behind it. A-