The Illusionist

September, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Neil Burger

Starring:Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, and Eleanor Tomlinson

Combine the period charm of Ronald Coleman’s The Prisoner of Zenda, (1937) with the sophisticated visual trickery of contemporary filmmaking as exemplified in movies like Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, (2000) and you’ll have an idea of the delightful wizardry writer/director Neil Burger serves up in this intriguing postscript to the summer’s particularly dreary movie schedule. Sparked by a wonderfully mysterious performance from Ed Norton and a surprisingly understated one by Paul Giamatti, this Drama/Fantasy/Romance/Thriller suggests that Hollywood hasn’t lost the capacity to make good escapist entertainment targeted at those some years over the age of reason.

Adapting a short story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser, Burger spins an old-fashioned yarn about a wandering magician named Eisenheim whose illusions create a sensation in Vienna when he appears there during the early years of the twentieth century. As his astounding performances generate public acclaim and interest from the royal family, he discovers that Countess Sophie, (the childhood sweetheart with whom he is still in love) will shortly be betrothed to Crown Prince Leopold, heir to The Austro-Hungarian Empire. Arrogant, cruel and eager to usurp his father’s throne, Leopold, (Rufus Sewell) employs Chief Inspector Uhl, (Giamatti) Vienna’s senior police official, to frustrate Eisenheim’s attempts to rekindle his romance with The Countess. Despite this interference, the lovers secretly reunite and pledge themselves to one another; but how can they escape the watchful eyes of Uhl’s ubiquitous spies and the vengeful Prince, who’s about to spring his coup-d'etat? 

Norton adds to his already impressive list of memorable roles here; even when playing the most understated of characters, the actor conveys both intelligence and menace kept carefully in check; his reserved, almost professorial Eisenheim doesn’t go looking for trouble but doesn’t shirk from appropriately dealing with it either. Sporting a neatly-trimmed goatee and a head of jet-black hair so thick it would take a power lawnmower to trim, Norton’s expressions suggest someone who has learned things the rest of us would do well to remain ignorant of. There’s also a hint of the mystical in this performance, accompanied by just a tinge of sadness at his ability to consistently gull his audiences…

As Uhl, Giamatti has the opportunity to step out from behind the over-praised schlemiel persona he offered in Sideways to portray a character who’s inquisitive, not above being bribed by the promise of political promotion and inherently likeable; with cocked head and twinkling eyes, Giamatti becomes a stand-in for those of us in theater seats who are as puzzled as he is by Eisenheim’s machinations. Uhl is a quite likeable character and Giamatti gives every impression of enjoying him as much as the audience does.

Rufus Sewell, no stranger to costume dramas, (Helen Of Troy, Tristan & Isolde) makes the perfect villain; insufferably vain and supercilious, he’s given to physically mistreating young women when he isn’t browbeating his underlings. What’s not to hate?    

Combining a hauntingly evocative musical score composed by the legendary Philip Glass with stunning locations, (in the Czech Republic cities of Prague and Tabor) the director sets up the film’s historical period by allowing cinematographer Dick Pope to bathe the film’s early scenes in washed, monochromatic colors suggesting old daguerreotype photographs and transitioning from one scene to another via the old-fashioned “iris” technique. Exquisite costuming and attention to period detail, (the credits list a coach on proper court decorum) supply a level of plausibility to Eisenheim’s derring-do and his cinematic slights-of-hand are integrated into the storyline with just the right amount of flourish; you’ll wonder, as Uhl constantly does, how on earth is the magic done? 

One final note: there’s a of level of respect for the audience’s intelligence at work here that’s combined with a refreshing lack of explicitness; save for a single slap, the story’s violence is kept off-screen and when Eisenheim and Sophie make love, the scene radiates romance, not gynecology. The Illusionist employs suggestion rather than blunt exposition because that best reflects the story’s era as well as the subtle allure of Norton’s performance; a dashing hero who relies on brain rather than brawn.  

There’s nothing even remotely serious about all this handsomely mounted escapism, but you’ll miss nearly two hours of near-perfect entertainment if you pass this one up. If, like The Countess Sophie, you find it’s already disappeared from the theaters in your area, jot down the title and wait for the DVD release in a few months time; you won’t regret it.  

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