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The Illusionist (2006)

May 6th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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In Vienna – presumably of the very early 20th century – the sullen Eduard Abramovicz, alias Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) summons a spirit while performing his act. As the crowd reacts, police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) storms the stage with soldiers and arrests Eisenheim for disturbing public order, charlatanism and threats against the empire.

Uhl reports to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) that he still doesn’t know how Eisenheim performs his illusions. Uhl reveals what he does know. Son of a cabinetmaker, young Eisenheim develops an obsession with magic, presumably from a fateful encounter with a wizard. The boy falls in love with a girl born into nobility named Sophie, but her family keeps the two apart.

Returning to Vienna as an adult, Eisenheim wows audiences with a beguiling array of magical feats, such as growing a seed into an orange tree on stage. His show comes to the attention of Leopold, who attends with a duchess. When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer, the duchess comes forward, and he immediately recognizes her as Sophie (Jessica Biel).

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Uhl – who considers himself an amateur conjurer – tries to befriend Eisenheim in an attempt to understand how he does what he does. Eisenheim cannily keeps the secrets behind his tricks just that, secret. The illusionist learns that Sophie is to marry the violent tempered prince, and while performing for him at his palace, responds to his taunts by embarrassing the heir to the throne in front of his guests.

Eisenheim meets secretly with Sophie and implores her to leave the prince, who is plotting to overthrow the emperor. Uhl informs the prince about his fiancee’s dalliance with the illusionist. Uhl is instructed to unravel Eisenheim’s tricks and reveal him as a fraud, which conflicts with his duty to uphold the law.

While editing his debut film Interview With The Assassin, writer-director Neil Burger got to talking to magician David Blaine, and later suggested to two of his producers – Brian Koppelman and David Levien – they do a film about a magician. He suggested a short story by Steven Millhauser called Eisenheim the Illusionist. Burger liked the story’s uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems, and fleshed it out to screenplay form.

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In spite of a great cast and world class crew, and working with a budget of $16.5 million, The Illusionist ends up being right on par with Burger’s very low budget debut. It’s nifty, builds strong atmosphere, has some good performances, but only feels about halfway written or thought out. In other words, it’s flawed.

Edward Norton accomplishes another tremendous screen transformation, and as perfect as he is as mysterious a 19th century showman, Paul Giamatti’s morally ambiguous detective made an even greater impression on me. Philip Glass wrote the musical score and bathes the story a tense, haunted quality that I liked.

As long as the story focuses on the battle between a stage magician and a state, it fascinated me. I believed the illusions. What I never bought was the romance between Norton and Biel’s characters. Biel is woefully unable to connect with anyone or anything and is painfully miscast in this.

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Director of photography Bill Pope gives the film an antiquated, rust-colored look throughout that also got on my nerves. I can’t remember ever hating a film’s color palette as much as I did the one here. I think Burger was going for an eerie silent film look, but the film’s color just got on my nerves.

While I’m complaining, several of the illusions were helped along with the aid of digital effects, which I can understand from a logistical standpoint, but that totally took me out of the movie. It has some cool ideas, but they never quite come together.

Ricky Jay & Michael Webber were among the film’s magic consultants, and all of the slight of hand tricks done by humans are terrific. Magic fans should enjoy this, but I’d give the Christopher Nolan directed The Prestige a slight edge between the two period magician films of 2006. This one is okay, never quite fulfilling its potential.

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Tags: Based on novel

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Becca // May 9, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I guess we disagree on this one as well. I really enjoyed this movie; the acting, the look, the score. God I love the score I had to run out and buy it, I’ve listened to it half a zillion times. Most of all I enjoyed the story kind of a dark fairytale/ love story (and I’m a sucker for this kind of a love story), a mystery that kept me guessing, which always impresses me cause I have this annoying habbit of guessing the twist in a mystery or horror film within the first 20 minutes so it’s always nice when your not quite sure how the story is going to unfold.

    I on the otherhand did not like the simular The Prestige, the acting was good and I enjoyed certain elements like Bowie as Tesla but overall the revenge plot didn’t impress me, it didn’t illicit the kind of emotional response in me I would expect having watched these two men give up everything in their lives just to obtain their revenge.

    …of course I assume you’ve seen The Prestige.

  • 2 Providence // May 19, 2007 at 3:03 am

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