Letter From The Editor - Issue 39 - May 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2006

Oh, oh, oh, it's [almost] magic

Sumptuously photographed The Illusionist is effective, but can't quite fool us the way it wants to

The Illusionist
Bob Yari Productions
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Neil Burger, based on the short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, by Steven Millhauser
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Josef Fischer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
Opened August 18, 2006 in top markets; staggered releases nationwide ongoing
(out of four)

The entire premise of The Illusionist revolves around sleight-of-hand. Magic. Fooling an audience into thinking one thing, and then pulling the rug out from under us. The title character of The Illusionist, Eisenheim (Edward Norton), is a master at this art--so much so that his "tricks" are considered subversive by the powers that be in early-1900s Vienna. The kid is good--very good.

The film, however, isn't nearly as good at playing its audience as Eisenheim is at playing his. Maybe we're just more jaded than folks were 100 or so years ago, but I don't quite buy that argument. We can still all be fooled, tricked by an expert manipulator. In The Illusionist, we know there will be twists and turns, and many will just be counting the seconds until the deus ex machina. That wouldn't be such a problem if the twists weren't, for the most part, the very twists we're expecting. But they're not--and not only that, they're not even particularly believable. When M. Night Shyamalan is at his best, he can play us like a violin. Hitchcock could do the same. Writer/director Neil Burger, adapting Steven Millhauser's short story, clearly wants that type of effect…but maybe he wants it too much. Maybe he's trying too hard. Or maybe the fault goes to Millhauser…I don't know, I haven't yet read the short story.

But no bother, I say. Because The Illusionist still works in parts, even if it stumbles in the third act. Burger gets the period down right--a lot of credit is due to his production design staff and his cinematographer, Dick Pope. The film draws us into its thick and beautiful atmosphere, and it's easy to be hypnotized by the mystery and political intrigue at the heart of the story. Eisenheim is a virtuoso illusionist who gets into a spot of trouble with the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

He has come to Vienna, it seems, to reclaim his childhood love, Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel). By society's rules, Eisenheim doesn't have the family pedigree to marry a woman of Sophie's caliber, but he'll hear none of it. Problem is, she happens to be Leopold's bride-to-be. You could see how that might get one into trouble.

His tricks start out innocently enough--impressive and even shocking, but nothing to get into too much of a fuss about. But then he goes and starts conjuring spirits from the dead, and that's just out of bounds. Eisenheim knows he's being naughty, but he keeps doing it anyway--forcing Leopold to call for his arrest if he does it again.

Eisenheim's defiance of the law, and of Leopold's political authority, make for some of the best scenes in the movie, as the two men's egos play off one another. And you just know Eisenheim has something up his sleeve--we just don't know what yet. Or at least we're not supposed to. Never mind.

Making things more difficult is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, playing against type as a "heavy"), a sympathetic character, nonetheless fiercely loyal as Leopold's right-hand man. He serves as the liaison between Eisenheim and Leopold, whose temperature is rising at his rival's bravado and increasing popularity.

Needless to say, tempers flare, people get hurt, rabbits are pulled out of hats, etc., and it all culminates in an ambitious but unsatisfying climax.

It is nice, though, to finally see Edward Norton back on the silver screen. This, along with this summer's Down in the Valley, is his first lead role since 2002's excellent 25th Hour. He was one of the best parts, in a small, supporting role, of Kingdom of Heaven, but for the most part he's been under the radar lately. He does well in his return, as do both Giamatti and Sewell.

The film's atmosphere and rich period detail, along with solid performances from the primary leads, make The Illusionist intriguing from the very start. Along the way, there are hits and misses. But it's an entertaining movie, and a feast for the eyes. And that's just good enough.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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