The Illusionist


The Illusionist

Written and Directed by Neil Burger

Based on a story by Steven Millhauser

Music by Philip Glass



Theatrical:  Koppelman-Levien, Michael London

Video: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: VC-1

Disc Size: 32.43 GB

Feature Size: 21.21 GB

Bit Rate: 25.96 Mbps

Runtime: 109 minutes

Chapters: 28

Region: A


English DTS-HD MA 5.1

French Dolby Digital 5.1

English Dolby Digital 5.1

Subtitles: None

NONE on the Blu-ray

DVD Extra Features:

Commentary by Writer/Director Neil Burger

The Making of The Illusionist

Jessica Biel on The Illusionist


Blu-ray Amaray case. 1 disc

Release Date: June 8, 2010


Released only a few weeks before that other movie about a magician (two of them, actually) The Illusionist had the jump and, for many, turned out to be the better movie.  The Prestige had Memento’s Christopher Nolan in the director’s chair plus the star power of Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, but it was too tricky for its own good.  Not so The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel (and a major assist from Rufus Sewell, whose name really ought to have joined those of his colleagues above the title) which sticks to the business at hand, magic and illusion, while developing a competent mystery/thriller/romance.

The Prestige saw new life on high definition video way back in the days of competing formats (February 2007) and a fine edition it was, though short on supplements. Fox’s new release goes the Buena Vista edition one better, maybe two in its bizarre handling of bonus features, as we shall see.


The Movie: 7

Edward Norton is “Eisenheim the Illusionist.”  He is certainly more compelling than your garden variety magician and sleight-of-hand artist. He even develops into something of a spirit conjurer, or so he would allow his audiences to believe.  But it is not these feats that get him into trouble.

In his youth he was the son of a furniture maker in the employ of an aristocratic family with an impressionable daughter named Sophie.  It was expected that Sophie would someday marry well, perhaps even into serious royalty.  To protect their investment, the family did what they could to interfere with her budding friendship with this young peasant.  Eisenheim, for his part, had already begun to practice his art which, when it came down to the final insult, was no match for wealth, power and influence.


Eisenheim grows up, travels, and years later returns, not quite to the scene of the crime, but it serves.  Now in Vienna, he headlines his own magic show to rave reviews.  Enter Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell) who comes to see the show one evening, along with his retinue that happens to include - guess who!  Leopold is wily and intelligent.  He is also ruthless and capricious.  When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience, Leopold volunteers Sophie, still unattached (an impossibly serene Biel), who has not as yet recognized her childhood friend.

Leopold intends to expose Eisenheim as a simple trickster.  He engages his favorite policeman, Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), to investigate Eisenheim and he invites the magician to give a private showing so that he can have a closer look for himself.  It is here that Eisenheim’s pride and long-suffering anger at the aristocracy gets the better of him and he insults the Crown Prince in subtle, but no uncertain terms.

This is more or less the first act of our little drama, leaving for us only the question of how, or if, Eisenheim can have his cake and eat it while at the same time avoiding prison or death.


Writer/Director Neil Burger does some fine conjuring of his own, recreating an eighteenth century mood and sense of locale in Prague and elsewhere in the Czech Republic.  His exteriors and interiors transport us to a world no longer so much as a memory - romantic, resplendent and mysterious by turns.

Burger secures a wonderfully edgy performance from Sewell, an actor I admit I am not generally fond of, and an agreeable one from Miss Biel, who isn’t really an actress.  Giamatti is the most finely nuanced of the bunch: Whispering almost every line, he pulls us into an interior dialogue that registers intriguing conflicts of interest.  Norton, usually somewhere between awesome and brilliant, succeeds here mostly when he isn’t speaking or making love to Jessica, the latter he seems ill-suited for. Or, perhaps it’s just absent chemistry.


i’m thinking: minus points for the dialect coach, Brendan Gunn, who fails to coordinate the various accents into a convincing package, and to Burger for permitting Norton to imitate an Austrian accent which, while not as embarrassing as Costner’s Robin Hood, lends the film its most visible sore thumb.  American actors in general are terrible mimics, unlike the British and Australians.  When we try to do a foreign accent it comes off as camp.  Giamatti’s whispers cleverly gets around the problem.

The verbal sparring between Norton and Giamatti, along with Sewell’s attempts to conquer his impotence are among the film’s best points.  Ditto for what is, after all, the reason we watch such a film in the first place: to suspend disbelief while we simultaneously try to figure out how the trick is done.  In my view, contrary to what is commonly held, it is this pursuit that separates us from the best that nature has to offer.


Image: 7/8

Do you ever ponder the basis on which a director chooses the aspect ratio for his film?  1.85:1 strikes me as exactly right.  Wide enough to connect a contemporary audience yet not so wide as to lose control over romance and illusion.  The image is reconsidered on this Blu-ray from its orginal 1.85:1 to 19x9 (1.78:1).  The difference is not consequemtial but it goes some to indicate Fox’s attitude about the material and its audience.

Acuity is something you don’t want too much of in a fantasy. Burger resorts to deliberately fogging the image in its misty prologue and generates a confusing grain when Eisenstein is on stage.  Everywhere else the image is luscious, though never razor sharp, as that would throw thongs out of balance.  There are no distracting transfer issues of concern and the source print is in fine shape.


Audio & Music: 8/8

To those of us who want and expect crisp, clear dialogue, exquisite, transporting music, and dynamic, nuanced effects, the audio mix delivers.  Most of the time, we are not even aware of it, keeping our aural attention fixed forward, and then suddenly a shot rings out and its power breaks our somnolence.  The air reverberates and a chilling reality takes us over, just as it does when a coach and horse drives by from behind and passes on our right.  From time to time we might also notice Philip Glass’s score could have benefitted from a more enveloping soundfield.


Extras: Oh, Dear!
Now we come to - and I’m trying hard to be civil about this - Fox’s cynically careless and lazy approach to the supplements.  It’s not that they are slim, but quite simply that they are on the wrong disc.  It’s one thing to have bonus features on a second disc so as to give the disc with the feature film more room to breathe.  Fox does make good use of its single layer at just shy of 26 Mbps.  That’s pretty decent.  But why not put the two main supplements on the BRD as well and make it dual layered in the bargain?  No?  Well, no biggie. 

Then how about including the audio commentary along with the high definition feature instead of - are you sitting down for this - requiring you to watch the DVD to access it?  I kid thee not.  The commentary is on the DVD!  Now that we have upgraded our home theater experience to high definition at no mean expense, we must now watch the movie in low-fi, and on a separate disc yet - to hear to Burger’s thoughts about his film.  I guess we could always close our eyes and just listen. It passes understanding that a studio would do such a thing to its customers.  Ah, and let us not neglect the absent subtitles.  Fox did.


Recommendation: 5

The magic of The Illusionist overcomes its various flaws.  The image quality of the Blu-ray is good, the audio excellent, but the layout of the supplementary features is too insulting to warrant an unreserved recommendation.  Rent it first.

Leonard Norwitz


June 11, 2010


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