"The Illusionist" Blu-ray Review
June 24, 2010 by Zach Demeter
With nary a magician/mystery driven film in sight, the world was given two in short succession in 2006. The most talked about, The Prestige was Christopher Nolan’s first film since Batman Begins which trumpeted such talent as Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in the lead; the other film, The Illusionist was decidedly less profile, though it certainly wasn’t lacking any star power. As time has gone by both films have fallen out of the public conscience as neither were particularly amazing even although they both were quite entertaining nonetheless; I guess a period film revolving around supernatural magic just doesn’t have much of an audience outside of these two films. It’s also reflected in their box office receipts as both could only be considered a success for all involved, even if critics and audiences were left with upended minds by the time the credits rolled on both films.
The acclaimed illusionist Eisenheim (Norton) has not only captured the imaginations of all of Vienna, but also the interest of the ambitious Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). But when Leopold's new fianc (Biel) rekindles a childhood fascination with Eisenheim, the Prince's interest evolves into obsession... and suddenly the city's Chief Inspector (Giamatti) finds himself investigating a shocking crime. But even as the Inspector engages him in a dramatic challenge of wills, Eisenheim prepares for his most impressive illusion yet.
For whatever reason I saw The Prestige in 2006 but not The Illusionist. I’d always meant to see it as I was a fan of both Norton and Giamatti but it just kept escaping my grasp; I’d either skip over it while plundering the local movie stores for sale rental piles in favor of some other film I would undoubtedly enjoy much less, or I’d just completely forget about it until I’d already whipped out my credit card to buy a stack of movies I would likely end up selling after a single viewing. I, clearly, do not boast the most logical of decisions when it comes to spending money, but I can at least safely ignore The Illusionist now whenever I see it on shelves.
I have to say the film really was worth the wait, however self-imposed it may have been. Norton was brilliant as always and Biel, however limited in her part, showed off her talents as well. It was a movie steeped in mystery from the start as we begin towards the end of it, a tactic I normally have disdain for but one that works extraordinarily well here. It also ties up remarkably well up until the very end when my head started to go “bwuh?” at all the revelations. There were so many, in fact, that I think that may have been the film’s final illusion: that you had no idea what was sleight of hand and what was actually supernatural. Or if any of it was even supernatural—certainly the technology was rudimentary if it even existed during the films time period, but even by today’s standards much of what happened would still be designated as improbable or impossible.
That is really where the film sticks with you as well. The plot is fairly simple as it’s one based on love and deception and all that, but where we really end up with is a stack of questions that make you really dwell upon all that you’ve just seen. Honestly you end up with the same questions after watching The Prestige, which is why I was rather surprised by the films similarities as they were not only nearly identical in presentation and style but also in terms of the story and character driven plot twists. Although with Nolan at least you knew they were coming—the only indication with The Illusionist that something might bend your brain is that Norton was involved and some of his productions have driven you to ponder what you just watched (Primal Fear, American History X and Fight Club to name a few).
Really it’s the simplicity of The Illusionist that works so well. The performances between the various cast members are always entertaining and, in particular, the sequences between Giamatti and Norton are an especial delight to witness. While you expect Giamatti’s character to cause trouble throughout, he quickly shows a kind of admiration and respect for Norton’s character which keeps things interesting when Giamatti’s loyalty is called into question. It’s as much of a character piece as it is a mystical/magical one and because of that don’t go in expecting a neat and tidy ending—although it’s a relatively happy one, it’s not one that answers any questions. In fact it probably just draws up more because Giamatti’s characters “flashback” of events that occurs made me question just what exactly I was seeing and why. I still don’t know and because of that I think I enjoyed the film more—even if it does turn out to be a jumbled mess in the end it was at least a memorable experience and you can’t ask for more than that from a film. Recommended.
Fox has released The Illusionist on Blu-ray in a two-disc Elite Blu-ray case. The film arrives with the usual Blu-ray on one disc, but rather than including a digital copy they just include a DVD copy, which appears to be the original DVD release. Menus are simple and easy to navigate and overall it’s a nice little package…though as we’ll soon see it’s kind of a disappointing one.
Video arrives with a very strong AVC encoded transfer. I absolutely loved the look of this film with not only its dated visuals but also the sometimes dated film effects used; not just the very poor lighting but also the grain and the kind of fade-ins to certain scenes. It looks fantastic on Blu-ray and the 1080p resolution really helps it pop off the screen at times, no matter how dimly lit a sequence may be. There isn’t much here in terms of color as even the oranges in the first part of the film are quite dull looking; again that’s just a color choice on the film so it’s hard to hold that against the transfer at all. It definitely isn’t something that will make your jaw drop but it is an exceptional looking film and it really does exude quite a bit more detail than what we got from the original DVD (which I had on hand for an easy comparison, obviously).
Audio is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix and truthfully speaking there isn’t a whole lot to rumble or toss in the surrounds. Crowd chatter adds ambience, of course, but there truthfully isn’t much to utilize the 5.1 setup here. The tricks are never explosive and I cannot recall a single moment in which the subwoofer really spoke up at all (except maybe for the lone gunshot towards the end of the film). It’s a very dialogue driven track and as a result we don’t get much from it other than that.
Extras…well, there’s nothing here on the Blu-ray. It’s all located on the included DVD:
• Feature Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Neil Burger
• The Making of The Illusionist Featurette
• Jessica Biel on The Illusionist Featurette
Not very much, as you can see, so the only perk of buying this set is to get the film on Blu-ray and while it definitely looks nice I doubt it’ll really be worth it for most to pony up for the upgrade. Worth a Rental.
The Illusionist is now available on Blu-ray.