The first thing to say is that two films were made and released at around the same time (2006) - this, 'The Illusionist', came out in the UK first, I believe, and was followed later by 'The Prestige'. Both are about magic, or perhaps more appropriately I should say illusion. Both are set in the past rather than in contemporary settings; both in late 19th or turn of the 20th century time periods. Both are duplicitous mystery thrillers, leading you up paths, only to turn around and reveal something else - back to that earlier point about magic and illusion. Both are basically well-made, look stylish and have big name casts. The problem is that despite all of these similarities, one of these films really works... and the other is 'The Illusionist'.
Starting off with the good side, 'The Illusionist' is beautifully crafted, starts off promisingly enough, and features a fine and nuanced performance from Paul Giamatti as a conflicted police inspector. But what really lets the film down are three things: slow pacing, most of the other key acting performances and an immensely disappointing and predictable ending.
The performances include an unusually muted turn from Edward Norton, an unconvincing and mis-cast Jessica Biel, and a hammy and intensely OTT Rufus Sewell.
But it's the extreme predictability and disappointing nature of the final third of the film that caused me to give this two-stars rather than the three-star rating that it perhaps would otherwise deserve. For a film like this, the cleverness of the illusion is fundamental. But here that illusion is shattered because it becomes all too obvious what the central twist is well before the end. Like any trick, once the all-important illusion is broken the film loses most of its magic, tension and ability to astound and impress. The final revelations therefore feel flat and unimpressive rather than clever and rewarding.
Ultimately, for me at least, this felt like a fairly shallow and even dull historical mystery. Lovely to look at, yes, with that excellent performance from Giamatti, but otherwise very slow and nothing to get your teeth into. I'd recommend that if you're looking for something clever within this general vein that you instead go for the multi-layered and more fascinating 'The Prestige' - now that's magic!