No “Illusion” here, just one of the year’s best
The best movies transport the viewer to another time and place when necessary, while at the same time stay grounded as they explore the universal elements of love, power, jealousy, and the quest for truth. “The Illusionist” is such a film, and though it’s quite obviously a supernatural mystery that relies on the power of magic, the bigger trick it pulls off is that of providing a mesmerizing story to match the hypnotic power of its visuals.
Set in 1900 Vienna, Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim, a cabinetmaker’s son who travels the world studying magic and returns home to make a name for himself through his spellbinding minstrel shows. Eisenheim provokes the attention of the sadistic and skeptical Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), and his beautiful aristocratic fianc?e Sophie (Jessica Biel), who gets to participate in one of Eisenheim’s onstage illusions. Upon seeing each other, the magician and his lovely accomplice realize they were childhood friends who were prevented from pursuing their romantic inclinations because of class distinction. Though amazed by the young wizard’s seemingly impossible stunts, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is duty bound to the Prince and must keep Eisenheim and Sophie apart. He must not let the magician’s popularity subvert His Royalty, and by doing so he can secure his own mayoral aspirations.
The splendid writing gives all of the principal actors a chance to do their best work on film to date. Norton (“The Italian Job” “Fight Club”) is perfect as the enigmatic Eisenheim, whose mysterious gaze belies his entrancing showmanship. Biel (“Stealth” and TV’s “7th Heaven”) finally gets to play a beauty of substance. Sewell (“The Legend of Zorro,” “A Knight’s Tale”) is in his ruthless element. Giamatti (“The Lady in Water” “Cinderella Man”) continues building his reputation for building intensity in his characters that transcends the scripted words he’s given.
Shot using autochrome photography, a technique used during the silent movie era, the film comes alive with the look of an antique hand-tinted scrapbook. And that’s as it should be, because above all else “The Illusionist” is old-fashioned moviemaking. It contains little of the cynicism or shock value that so many independent films rely on. (“The Illusionist” is independent at heart, considering its miniscule budget of $16 million and minor distributor.) Even composer Phillip Glass uses an appropriate light touch to heighten suspense. It’s almost enough to allow forgiveness for his Advil-inducing runs that scored “The Hours.”
Some will question the authenticity of the illusions performed in the film, but director Neil Burger, who also wrote the screenplay (from a short story by Steven Millhause), affirms the movie’s period consistencies. Skeptics can skip this one. Those fascinated by a magician’s power to manipulate perception will find “The Illusionist” and his story gloriously riveting.
Rated Pg-13 for some mild sexuality and violence.