Movie Review
The Illusionist
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
B+


too much has already been said—and much more left inferred—regarding the cast of turn-of-the-century romance The Illusionist, so here’s what we already know: It stars Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel. Two of these actors have nominated for Oscars; one has been in Blade: Trinity. It’s been noted.

In what might then appear on paper as a bit of blow-off acting from the school of outstanding contractual obligations (if it weren’t quite so good), Norton and Giamatti play intellectual rivals matching wits in what turns out to be a surprisingly whimsical magic mystery. In flashbacks narrated by Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Uhl, we learn a sepia-soaked version of how a young carpenter’s son fell in love with an aristocratic girl named Sophie. Years later, he would become Eisenheim the Illusionist (Norton), and she a duchess (Biel) engaged to the Crown Prince of Austria. But love dies hard in low-budget, character-driven indies, and the torches they carried as kids still burn. Unfortunately for the lovers, her fiancé is played by Rufus Sewell (and therefore manifestly evil). He’ll hunt them down if they elope. Does she truly want to escape with him, he asks. She does. A canny viewer can guess the Romeo and Juliet plot structure from here on out.

If the twists aren’t exactly surprising—and they shouldn’t be, coming from a film whose very title promises the unexpected—they’re still rewarding, though debriefed in a clumsy, too-rapid denouement. But the real surprise of The Illusionist is that it’s so enjoyable and, at times, even spellbinding. Part of the magic lies in the film’s un-cynical embrace of old-fashioned storytelling—the kind where villains are villains, heroes are heroes, and women have perfect hair no matter how much recreational horse-riding and candlelit lovemaking they engage in. It’s almost fairy-tale-like in its complete lack of moral ambiguity, and it’s endearing. Sophie, born a duchess, retains as her singular goal to live in the Alps with a magician. Eisenheim, who traveled the world for over a decade, can shake from his mind everything but a teenage crush.


It’s simplistic, but we buy it, and the film never betrays it. Chief Inspector Uhl, for his part, is a man seeking to do right by his position and has no qualms about confronting the very powers of the Empire to deliver justice. And if you’ve seen Sewell as a jealous, evil prince in one movie, you’ve pretty much seen them all. He’s apt. Director Neil Burger, in only his second outing behind the camera, keeps the pace impeccable and the story (which he adapted for the screen) ever suspenseful. Because the film takes place primarily in the decidedly Old World-evocative Vienna and almost entirely by gilded candlelight, Burger has a good amount of mood to play with here. He uses that ambience to keep the tone slightly mysterious, just creepy enough to keep the love story in check.

Still, for all the loyalty the film holds toward its characters, and for all the competence and commitment with which Burger dedicates to telling this engrossing story, part of the fun inevitably derives from knowing what this movie could have been. Passed over at Sundance, The Illusionist was lucky ever to see the inside of a theater. And while it doesn’t scrimp on production values, it certainly doesn’t go big; there’s something about lacking wide location glamour shots and more than a dozen extras that makes a movie feel thrifty, a little throwaway even. And, come on, it stars Jessica Biel as a 19th Century duchess. Yes, I said we were past that, but Jessica Biel? Really?

Yet against all odds, Burger’s film is pretty darn good. It didn’t have a big budget, true, but it has lots of heart and a knack for mesmerizing story sense. Maybe that’s why critics and audiences have been so eager to champion it. But before the film falls prey to over-hype, after months of languishing with no hype at all, it’s worth noting that this is no epic of bygone Hollywood Romanticism. It’s not so much a grand symphony as a music box—small, tidily constructed, and very, very pretty. Even Biel is fine. Actually, she’s just perfect.

The Illusionist is playing in theatres across the country.




By: Amanda Andrade
Published on: 2006-10-02
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