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Movie Review ***..: ...The Illusionist... Dazzles

A Spellbinding Tale of Love and Magic

By Bill Andrews

The Illusionist

Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti,

Jessica Biel, and Rufus Sewell

Directed by: Neil Burger

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I thought The Illusionist was an art house film. Perhaps it was the Gothic nineteenth century Viennese locale, perhaps it was the slightly pretentious word “illusionist,” or perhaps it was that the screening I saw was at the Museum of Fine Arts. What, I ask you, could be more artsy than the MFA? Well, it turns out I was half right. The subject matter, style, and overall quality were up to traditionalist art house standards; the casting was not. Thank goodness it worked out anyway.

We begin with the title role, the Illusionist (magician) himself, Eisenheim, played by Edward Norton. I once heard someone say, “Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey should do a movie together called, We’re just normal wait we’re Weird!” and this movie is no exception. The dark, brooding, ethereal characterization of Eisenheim established, and then harmonized with, the film’s dreary mood, and Norton threw himself into every last tortured moment. His illusions are so well performed that it’s difficult to tell whether they’re actual CG or just good ol’ sleight of hand magic.

Next is the love interest, a surprisingly talented Jessica Biel. Best known for her part in 7th Heaven and showing her parts in various magazines, Biel was quite believable as the forlorn beauty destined to marry not her true love (Eisenheim, in case you’ve never seen a movie before), but instead the evil crown prince Leopold, heir to the emperorship. While Biel and Rufus Sewell (as the prince) did well enough with what they had, their characters were largely flat, unchanging, and uncomplicated. That’s not always a bad thing, and this movie works just fine with only two complex characters, but it would’ve spiced things up to have more than the stock ‘girl’ and ‘bad guy’.

The other complex character is Chief Inspector Uhl, played by the always complex (and great) Paul Giamatti. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that, like Tom Hanks, there is no role Giamatti would not rock at. Uhl is the wild card in this story, keeping the action moving (quite literally for most of the movie, as it is mostly told as a flashback with him narrating) and keeping things from becoming too predictable. Uhl’s slow and subtle transformation from craven lackey to honorable policeman is entirely realistic and believable, even if a little predictable.

The story itself, however, is not quite so predicable. Though initially dismayed when I realized it was, pretty much, a love story, I was happy to see it was not a conventional one, even though it strayed dangerously close at times. Beyond the simple love triangle is a web of deceit, treachery, and murder, some of it apparently as logic-defying as Eisenheim’s orange tree trick. Set against the backdrop of a society where electricity and moving pictures seem like magic tricks themselves, the sense of looking forward while being tied to the past comes through in the characters as well. Time moves on, and no illusion can change the past.

Or can it? As Eisenheim’s tricks become more and more flat-out-impossible, we’re left questioning what else might be real or false, what other tricks might be going on, what more we don’t know. As time within the story starts to catch up to the beginning of the movie (when Uhl begins narrating the flashback), more and more is happening and by the climax we are in such breathless suspense that it seems it can’t possibly all work, all tie-in together. But it does, in one of the most satisfying endings I’ve seen all year.

But then, ‘The Illusionist’ is a movie that satisfies on all levels. It’s visually dramatic, dark and creepy with a few colors and sentimentality added in via Vaseline blurring the edges of the screen, lending shots the appearance of old photographs. The score does just what a score should do, intensifying your emotions without distracting you. The sets evoke both the old world charm of a Europe long gone by, and the danger and polite savagery that were so prevalent. If there is a flaw, it is only that so much more could have been done. If this movie set out to be a masterpiece, a film of drama, suspense, love, and violence, a tale of the redemption of the corrupt and the inevitable failure of greed, it could have done so with only slightly more effort. Instead it’s a movie that’s pretty good, but not great. Of course, with the way things are in Hollywood these days, taking a risk and making a great film might just be asking one magic trick too many.

Take a chance, see ‘The Illusionist’. You’ll be amazed.