At The Picture Show
Oh, oh, oh, it's [almost] magic
Sumptuously photographed The Illusionist is effective, but can't quite fool us the way it
Bob Yari Productions
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Neil Burger, based on the short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, by Steven
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