Friday, January 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Illusionist

The Illusionist
Rated: PG- 13
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell
Directed By: Neil Burger
Run time: 1 hr, 50 min

This movie may have had a relatively small box office haul ($39 million) when it was released last September. It may have been hurt by the fact that there were two period magician pieces released around the same time (Sept/Oct), and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige was, well, the more prestigious of the pair.

I haven't seen Nolan's film yet, which boasts of a bigger cast (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johannson, Michael Caine) and grander plot (two dueling magicians drive each other to the brink of madness), but this quieter little offering from newbie director Burger was a satisfying and engrossing tale that entertains from start to finish.

Norton (Fight Club, Down in the Valley, and who can forget his debut in Primal Fear?) plays against type as a stoic, mystical man named Eisenheim who lives in 1900 Vienna. He was the son of a cabinetmaker who met a mysterious man on a deserted road when he was roughly 12. The man showed him incredible tricks, making things such as people and trees disappear. Eisenheim was enthralled with the old man's talents and began practicing magic himself. It was around this time that he fell for a beautiful young Duchess named Sophie. Theirs was the proverbial forbidden love between royalty and the peasant. When their aborted attempt to run away together ended with threats made to Eisenheim & his family, he decided to leave Vienna and see what else life had to offer him.

Flash forward 15 years; Eisenheim has traveled to parts of Europe and Asia honing his craft and has come full circle back to Vienna. He is now an illusionist of some renown and fills a playhouse to "3/4 capacity" on a nightly basis. Eisenheim is like an early David Blaine (before he went nuts)or Criss Angel, a man whose tricks appeared to transcend both time and space. His first big illusion is he makes an orange tree grow from an empty bucket while two butterflies deliver an audience member's handkerchief to many oohs & ahhs. One of those who admires his talents is Inspector Uhl (an excellent Giamatti), a good-hearted lawman who nonetheless is rendered a gravy-training lackey of the slimy king-to-be Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell, Dark City) in hopes of making Chief Inspector or higher some day.

As Eiseneim's show gains popularity, he is paid handsomely and also draws the interest of the Crown Prince, who decides to attend the show in person to see what all the fuss is about. When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience for his illusion of cheating death, Leopold volunteers his beautiful, young bride-to-be. After the woman enters the stage, Eisenheim is shocked and pleased to find that the woman is none other than his early love, Sophie (Biel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)
For the trick Sophie dons a red robe and faces a large stand up mirror. As she bows her head towards the frame, a figure with a sword can be seen behind her in the reflection. The figure is also wearing a red robe and comes towards Sophie with sword drawn. The figure slashes the sword seemingly right through Sophie and her reflection falls to the floor as if dead. Eisenheim takes his hand and conjures her spirit to rise up out of the body and disappear into thin air.

The illusion takes the audience's breath away and instantly Eisenheim is transformed from a mere magician to a mystical genius; however, the attention does not sit well with the Crown Prince. After the performance, Leopold invites Eisenheim to put on a show at his castle where the Prince and a handful of smart men will attempt to deconstruct every trick the illusionist performs. In the meantime, Eisenheim meets with Sophie and the two immediately rekindle old flames, though Sophie informs him that she will be marrying Leopold soon and the Prince has ideas of overthrowing his father the King to gain control of the government. Eisenheim immediately plans to take Sophie away from him and begins to devise a plan that will let them live free with no fear of Leopold hunting them down.

At the castle, Eisenheim is badgered by Leopold about how his tricks are done. The first one he performs, illustrating a portrait of the King on a blank canvas with no brushes or hands, is deemed a cheap parlor gag by an irritated Leopold. What comes next infuriates the Prince even more. Eisenheim asks for Leopold's sword and stands it on its tip in the middle of the floor; he then recites the tale of Excalibur and dares someone to pull the sword from its spot. After two volunteers can't budge it, Leopold goes over to it and gingerly attempts to pull it free. After a hesitation, Eisenheim allows Leopold to retrieve his sword and says, "see, only the rightful owner can claim it," but the damage is done. Leopold was humiliated and when Uhl gives him word that Sophie and Eisenheim had secretly met, the Prince gives the order to bring the illusionist down at all costs.

To go into any more detail would reveal a key piece of the story. Since I'm not one to publish "spoilers," I'll just wind it up by saying Eisenheim uses his mastery of the spirit world to become somewhat of a medium for the deceased and drives the Prince to the brink of madness. His otherworldly powers serve as the perfect vessel to pull off his ultimate disappearing act... The last 1/4 of the film is an exhilarating thrill ride filled with incredible tricks, twists, and a terrific ending that leaves you both scratching your head and smiling at the same time.

What makes this film so enjoyable is the lush cinematography, detailed set pieces & costumes and use of lighting, which all work to transport the viewer back to the projected time and place. The acting is also quality all around. Norton turns in one of his best performances since Primal Fear, playing the illusionist as both a complex man who may or may not have powers beyond the realm of this world and as a man driven by the most simple of all desires: love. Oscar- nominee Giamatti gives the film character with his portrayal of the conflicted Inspector. Sewell chews the scenery as a power-hungry madman, and Biel does what she does best: looks pretty and makes it believable that a man would go to great lengths to obtain her love.
All in all this was a very engaging tale, well told, briskly-paced with solid performances, beautiful scenery and an original plot. Throw in a little spiritual magic and a terrific ending and you end up with a memorable film that lingers long after the wisps of the story have faded away.

And that's no illusion.

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