The Illusionist (2006)

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Released 17-Jul-2007

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary-Director Neil Burger
Featurette-A Short Insight Into The Illusionsist
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2006
Running Time 104:27
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Neil Burger
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Edward Norton
Paul Giamatti
Jessica Biel
Rufus Sewell
Eddie Marsan
Jake Wood
Tom Fisher
Aaron Johnson
Eleanor Tomlinson
Karl Johnson
Vincent Franklin
Nicholas Blane
Philip McGough
Case ?
RPI ? Music Philip Glass


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    The Illusionist is an entertaining period movie, with touches of mystery and romance. With an excellent cast, and wonderful production values, The Illusionist is a well-crafted and beautiful looking film. But sadly, while the story is absorbing, it often seems far too serious and emotionally detached.

    Based on the short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist is the second film from writer/director Neil Burger, following his moderately successful, fake-documentary, Interview With the Assassin (2002).

    The Illusionist mentioned in the title, is the very masterful stage magician, Eisenheim (Edward Norton). Eisenheim is a star of the Viennese stage in early 1900s. His performances are both critically acclaimed and very popular with both the working and aristocratic classes.

    After the opening, in which Burger presents us with the main characters, the story flashes back to Eisenheim as a youth (Aaron Johnson), a self-taught magician and peasant boy, who catches the attention of an aristocratic and rebellious, young girl, Sophie von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson). Sophie is fascinated by Eisenheim, and the two steal moments when they can to be alone together, away from disapproving eyes.

    However, their growing friendship is heavily frowned upon, and as Sophie is a young aristocrat, it is the young Eisenheim who is driven out of town. Eisenheim uses his years in exile to travel through the mysterious and far East, developing amazing skills as a magician. He returns to Vienna all grown-up and is now a master conjurer, able to create illusions that defy the bounds of the physical world.

    Eisenheim's show is the talk of the town, and soon he captures the attention of the arrogant and greedy, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Prince Leopold attends one of Eisenheim's shows, and volunteers his lovely fiancé, the now grown-up, Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), to assist Eisenheim on stage. The recognition between the childhood sweethearts is almost instantaneous, but they do not connect until the prince invites Eisenheim to perform at a private party. Here Prince Leopold observes the connection between Eisenheim and Sophie, and petty and jealous Prince sets about to debunk Eisenheim’s skills.

    Prince Leopold sets the dogged Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) onto Eisenheim. Uhl is used to doing the Prince's dirty work, and although he wrestles with his conscience, Uhl begins to follow Eisenheim and report on his activities. The Prince also orders the Inspector to shut down Eisenheim's show, even if it enrages the masses.

    Movies featuring stage magic are always difficult, as the point of stage magic is creating believable and entertaining illusions, in front of a live crowd. But everyone knows movies are a collection of separately filmed scenes, made up of a number of edited parts. So even before one considers CGI, SFX, or camera angles, the 'magic' is already lost. The Illusionist takes on this problem, by following the lead of other stage magicians who have recorded their shows, by having Eisenheim perform his magic before a 'live' audience.

    However, despite the fact that Ricky Jay was on set as a magic consultant, Eisenheim's illusions are so eerie and impossible that we soon lose interest in him on a realistic human level. That said, there are a few great magic sequences, such as Eisenheim's early stage performances in Vienna, and a spiteful encounter between Eisenheim and Prince Leopold, where the illusionist cleverly stages a sword-in-the-stone style trick at Prince Leopold's private party. Eisenheim mentions the story of King Arthur and Excalibur, the sword in the stone. The reference to Arthurian legend is poignant, as here we have a Lancelot stealing away the King's Guinevere.

    While the stage magic is far too unrealistic, the real magic in The Illusionist occurs whenever Norton and Giamatti appear together onscreen. The relationship between their characters of Eisenheim and Uhl, are of two men sharing a wary respect for each other. They are both from humble beginnings, both ambitious, and both have been successful. Their cat and mouse game, as the naturally nosy Uhl investigates Eisenheim, is compelling viewing.

    At the centre of The Illusionist sits a love triangle, between Eisenheim, Sophie, and Prince Leopold. But sadly, there is little real chemistry, and seemingly no passion between Norton and Biel. Norton is a great actor - one of the best of his generation, with the ability to convincingly bring heroes and villains to life, but he's never been a decent romantic lead. Here Norton provides a subtle, controlled, and thoughtful performance. His character is cool, even cold at times, yet always able to convey the sense that he’s a step ahead of his audience and his adversaries. Interestingly, Norton has avoided the clichéd flamboyance usually associated with stage magicians, but he often appears far too withdrawn, and even detached from the story and characters around him. Indeed, he almost lacks any personality at all. As a result, The Illusionist also often seems too frigid and impersonal.

    For me, the best performance is provided by the excellent, Giamatti as Uhl. Giamatti has the ability to do a lot with a supporting role, as we saw with his excellent performance in Cinderella Man. Playing the audience's surrogate sceptic in The Illusionist, Giamatti plays the Chief Inspector as a man whose faith in his work (and the Crown Prince) is wearing thin. It seems that he is mainly in charge of protecting the Crown Prince, which includes covering up his many lurid activities. Giamatti creates a complex and recognisable character in Uhl, one who walks the fine line between trying to serve his own interests and those of his boss, Prince Leopold, while also fighting to hold onto his integrity and sense of justice. Uhl really comes alive when trying to figure out Eisenheim’s illusions, but he also seems continually and enjoyably baffled by them at the same time.

    As always, Biel looks lovely, and manages to bring a spirit of defiance and rebelliousness to her role as Sophie, a young Duchess rebelling against the restrictions of her class. But as with her other film roles, Biel is not given much to do, other than provide a supporting role, and look pretty. Also, unlike the other main cast members, she never looks like someone from this time period.

    Sewell seems to have played one to many villains, and as with The Legend of Zorro, he goes a little over-the-top, almost sliding into parody as the usurping, greedy, and jealous Crown Prince.

    As for the direction, Burger cleverly mixes intrigue and romance with a healthy doses of misdirection. We have mysterious characters with largely unknown motives, and mysterious plot elements that don’t seem to add up. Throughout the film, Burger maintains a steady tone of utter solemnity, which only adds to the film's coldness. Burger also refuses to take any really creative chances, often relying on a series of bland, time-tested cinematic devices, such as the old plot stand-by, the love triangle, and the 'twist' ending. I don't usually mention twist endings in reviews, but any viewer of this DVD will find the film's ending as inevitable, and certainly not surprising in the least.

    The film boasts excellent production values, and Cinematographer Dick Pope provides some beautiful photography, which is often presented with a golden wash, and sometimes framed in a brown edging, like vintage photographs. The film's art direction and production design beautifully recreates early 20th century Vienna, and Burger crams his Prague streets with canes, top-hats, wire-rimmed glasses, goatees, and clip-clopping Clydesdales, which all positively add to the overall effect.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Overall the transfer is great, and true to the original film.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, 16x9 enhanced.

    The image is reasonably sharp throughout. The black level is good, but for artistic reasons, the image has a very high contrast, and subsequently the shadow detail is very limited. For example, in the scene in the theatre at 13:50 there is absolutely no discernable detail in any of the dark clothing. Also consider the background of the theatre at 18:27 which also lacks any shadow detail.

    The colour is wonderful, and the whole film has a golden wash over it. Often sepia tones are used to give the image the appearance of vintage photographs. As a result of these effects, some of the skin tones can look a little orange at times.

    There are a few grainy moments, but there were no problems with MPEG or Film-To-Video Artefacts. When the movie begins, what I thought at first was telecine wobble during the opening credits appears to actually be an intended effect. Tiny film artefacts did appear throughout, but they are mostly very small, and I did not find them distracting.

    Only English subtitles are provided, and they are accurate.

    This is a single-sided, dual-layered disc, with the feature divided into 21 Chapters.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The audio quality is very good.

    There are three audio options on the DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 encoded at 448 kbps, Dolby Stereo Surround encoded at 224 kbps, and a Dolby Stereo Audio Commentary.

    The dialogue quality and audio sync is excellent on the default English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track.

    Composer Philip Glass has provided an unexpectedly subtle orchestral score, which suits the often eerie mood of the film.

    This is a dialogue-based drama, and as such no surround sound bombardment is required. That said, there is a nice sound field, and the surround presence and activity is immersive. The rear speakers are used effectively to help carry the score, and provide ambience, such as the horses and carriages in the street at 35:29 and the crowd's applause in the performance at 40:21.

    This film does not have a LFE-heavy audio track. The subwoofer does support the score, but it never really draws attention to itself.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The extras are very slim.

Menu

    An animated menu, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced, with Dolby Digital stereo audio.

Audio Commentary

    Director Neil Burger provides a screen-specific commentary in which he praises the actors, and discusses the film's various locations in Prague. As the adapter of the short story, he also discusses elements of the story and script. Perhaps because he felt he needed to keep speaking, a lot of his commentary is merely narrating what's happening on screen.

A Short Insight Into The Illusionist (3:49)

    Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, with Dolby Digital stereo audio, and running for less than four minutes, this is a very "short insight" - a piece of marketing fluff with sound bites from the three main characters presenting their characters and the film.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Illusionist has been released on DVD in Region 1, and considering the featurettes are so inconsequential, I would say our versions are equal. But there is a R2 (Holland) release with dts audio and a number of cast interviews. The Illusionist has not been released on Blu-ray or HD-DVD.

The Region 4 DVD misses out on:

The Region 1 DVD misses out on:

Summary

    The Illusionist is an enjoyable period film featuring some mystery, but little genuine romance or suspense.

The video quality is very good.

The audio quality is also very good.

The extras are slim.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Brandon Robert Vogt (warning: bio hazard)
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDSony Playstation 3 (HDMI 1.3) with Upscaling, using HDMI output
DisplayPanasonic High Definition 50' Plasma (127 cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationSamsung Pure Digital 6.1 AV Receiver (HDMI 1.3)
SpeakersSamsung

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