Other than the fact that both movies deal with late 19th century magicians, it's really not fair to compare the two movie. The Prestige has an epic feel to it with scope and style to burn while The Illusionist is a smaller movie that makes up for its lack of scope with some a real feel of what a period piece movie should be like. Just because they're different doesn't mean either are worth passing up, they're both excellent, highly entertaining movies. Watching 'Illusionist' though, I had the feel of a classic Hollywood movie in terms of the simplicity of the story but also the filming techniques. Moral of the story? Check both out, they'd make an interesting double-bill.
In late 19th century Vienna, a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) opens a show to huge crowds and critical favor with his vast array of tricks that he is able to perform. His tricks are not just sleight of hand and deception, seemingly having something deeper and more sinister. Could he actually have supernatural powers? One night on stage, he asks for a volunteer and a beautiful woman walks on stage, Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel) the fiance of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the heir to the throne. As teenagers, Eisenheim and Sophie were very close only to be torn apart because of their class differences. Now as Leopold makes a play for the throne, the reunited couple plans to run away, but nothing comes easy. A police inspector by the name of Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is on their trail trying to figure out exactly what they're up to.
Without giving away some major plot revelations, that is about as detailed as I'm going to get with the story. Know that the story takes a big turn about halfway through, but a good, smart turn. It's not a difficult movie to follow but if I can say anything it will be this; pay attention because everything you see is not as it seems. Director and screenwriter Neil Burger fashions a good old fashioned story that's a blend of romance between lost loves, the mystery of a magician and all his tricks, and the always reliable dogged detective trying to piece clues together as he goes. With all that in the mix, the movie could have been overwhelming, but it finds that nice balance among all three.
As for the movie on the whole, it has a very distinct feel of a throwback to the classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s, albeit with the technology from the 2000s. The film was shot on location in the Czech Republic so right off the bat, the story looks like it should, taking place in the events where the story actually takes place. Novel concept, huh? Cinematographer Dick Pope puts together a beautiful finished version with full colors and great visuals. At times, the corners of the screen are even fuzzy -- a little faded -- as if the movie was released 60 or 70 years ago. He also uses some cool-looking, very stylish scene transitions that catch the eye. Also, composer Philip Glass's score varies between a soothing main theme and a quicker version -- that still sounds time appropriate -- when the story requires a little brisker pace.
One thing that definitely caught me by surprise when I read about a magician story period piece was the casting. Norton, Biel and Giamatti just didn't seem like appropriate choices for a 19th century period piece, but I guess the joke was on me. As Eisenheim, Norton is able to go back and forth between this intense on-stage performer with this low-key man off the stage. Then when pushed too far, this brooding anger comes through in an underrated performance from Norton. In the past, I've never thought much of Biel as an actress, but she nails this part. She looks the part in period clothing and manages a believable accent. The best performance for me though was Giamatti as Uhl, the police inspector balancing a desire to improve himself with a curiosity as to how Eisenheim does his tricks. His last scene especially stands out in a scene-stealing part. Sewell is appropriately evil/dislikable with Eddie Marsan good in a small part as Eisenheim's manager.
There's not much to complain or be critical about here. The pacing early on can be a little slow, but it never drags. The slower portions of the story are necessary so when some twists and turns do start popping up it's non-stop the rest of the way. Also, I think Berger made a wise decision leaving Eisenheim's abilities a mystery. Is he just a highly skilled, very talented illusionist able to deceive audiences, or is there something else there? Does he have some sort of other-worldly supernatural powers? I guess it depends on the viewer, but it's a question and a movie worth looking into.
The Illusionist <---trailer (2006): ***/****