Capturing our attention would be a really good trick

The Illusionist (PG) Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Eddie Marsan. 109 mins. TWO STAR RATING The recent vogue for tales of historical magicians in conflict (the novel Jonathan Strange & Dr

The Illusionist (PG) Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Eddie Marsan. 109 mins.

TWO STAR RATING

The recent vogue for tales of historical magicians in conflict (the novel Jonathan Strange & Dr Norrell, the movie The Prestige) continues with the release of The Illusionist. The setting is turn of the 20th century Vienna and, instead of two magicians battling it out, this time the conflict is between the mysterious stage illusionist Eisenheim (Norton) and Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell).

It's a battle between mysticism and the rational, played out through the Prince's rather reluctant chief of police, Inspector Uhl (Giamatti). The root of the conflict though is a girl, Sophie (Biel), the Prince's fiancé and Eisenhiem's childhood sweetheart.


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The scene is nicely set for an intriguing tale of bluff and deception, one which keeps you guessing right up until the end. You sit back with the expectation of seeing a good yarn unfold - but it never really grabs you as much as you'd like to be grabbed. The pay-offs are somehow always less than you expect and, when the final "reveal" is produced at the end of the film, it's as ho hum as a rabbit from a hat.

Giamatti and Sewell are both in fine form though Norton again strikes me as an actor who is all exterior. He looks and sounds the part - even without a cape his clothes seems to swirl and swish around him - but he seems hollow. Of course, he's playing a man of mystery and we cannot know what's inside him. But he does need to suggest there is some interior life there to keep secret.

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It's a film about magic and illusion that seems to be more concerned with special effects than sleight of hand. The Prestige was happy to let audiences in on how the tricks were done and therefore we bought more readily into the reality of the situation. The Illusionist can't do that because the plot requires its central character's methods to remain a mystery.

The film's central enigma should be whether Eisenheim is merely an illusionist or has genuine supernatural powers. But for most of the film I was wondering whether we were supposed not to notice that all his stage tricks looked so obviously done by computer.

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