This trick flick's a treat

Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 11:56 p.m.


The Illusionist

  • RATED: PG-13
  • STARS: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
  • THEATER: Butler Plaza
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  • There is a bit of magic in all movies that successfully cast a spell over viewers, and a great deal of it in "The Illusionist," a superb fable about a turn-of-the-century theatrical conjurer whose tricks so irritate the Crown Prince of Austria that his livelihood and his life become endangered.
    The film is also a profoundly romantic love story, between illusionist Eisenheim (the perpetually remarkable Edward Norton, in a performance wholly unlike anything he has done previously) and the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (a luminous Jessica Biel). As we see in an early flashback, they met as children, formed a bond of adolescent love that was not entirely broken by her high-born parents' insistence that they be kept apart.
    Fascinated by magic, young Eisenheim travels the world, learning his craft from sorcerers of many exotic cultures, before returning to Vienna where he enthralls audiences with his inexplicable illusions. When he asks for a volunteer to assist him one evening, a woman comes onstage, and he instantly recognizes her as his Sophie. But their reunion is complicated by the fact that she is now the mistress of the Prince Leopold (a sublimely petulant Rufus Sewell) and soon to be his bride.
    Apparently too much in love to be wise, Eisenheim embarrasses the prince with his stage act, notably in a command performance in which he stands the prince's sword on its tip and defies the man destined to be the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian realm to pick up the weapon.
    The prince orders his henchman, an urbane chief inspector named Uhl (Paul Giamatti, playing deftly against type), to kick Eisenheim out of his rented theater and out of Vienna. Enraged by a mounting belief that Sophie has been unfaithful to him with a mere magician, Prince Leopold has her killed.
    Still, Eisenheim has been astounding audiences by calling up spirits from the dead in his act. He concedes it is a trick, but can he conjure up the spirit of Sophie for real?
    Atmosphere is crucial in a movie like "The Illusionist," and director Neil Burger ("Interview with the Assassin") works his own magic with a dream-like aura, sepia tones and lush period details, often supplied by the location work in Prague, standing in for Vienna. Even if some of Eisenheim's act involves trick camerawork, the illusions have an authenticity thanks to magic historian and practitioner Ricky Jay. Although the music score by postmodernist Philip Glass is somewhat anachronistic, it is a swirling, insistent mood-setter.
    While technically impressive on what is surely a limited budget, the film hinges on the understated, yet mesmerizing performance of Norton, a genuine showman behind a demonic beard. The film concludes, like a good magic act, with a complex illusion that is likely to leave you with a satisfied "Ahh."
    How did they do it? Very well, indeed.

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