Illusionist, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Illusionist is the kind of film that could too easily get lost in the summertime crowd, which is a shame because it's a lot a fun - an infectious mix of romance, mystery, and magic. Filmmaker Neil Burger (Interview with an Assassin), adapting a short story by Steven Millhauser, has used solid acting, capable storytelling, and deft sleight-of-hand directing to provide a motion picture that is more entertaining than one might suspect from the title. The movie celebrates magic in its many forms while testifying to the enduring power of love.

It's 1900 in Vienna and there's a new sensation on stage: Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), whose tricks are so ambitious that many in the audience believe he is actually manipulating the supernatural. Among Eiseneheim's doubters are Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) and Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Leopold is so determined to expose Eisenheim's fakery that, at a performance, he sends his intended, Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel), to the stage as a volunteer. For Eisenheim, it's an unsettling moment - he recognizes Sophie as a girl with whom he was madly in love years earlier. Later, when she discerns who he was and what he meant to her, they rekindle their romance - much to the anger of the Crown Prince, who orders Inspector Uhl to shut down Eisenheim's show, even if such an act enrages the masses.

The Illusionist is almost an art house/mainstream hybrid, containing elements of both. The setting and budget are in accord with what one might expect from a movie in a limited run. The cast, however, contains a trio of high profile names, one of which is commonly associated with teen-friendly multiplex fare. In addition, Burger's story is at its heart a crowd-pleaser, and many who guess the film's "trick" won't hold it against The Illusionist. Those who are sticklers for detail may appreciate that most of the magic acts illustrated throughout the film are replicated from their real-life 19th century counterparts (some of which were surprisingly sophisticated for that day and age). While Burger does occasionally use artistic license, he steers clear of "cheating" by overusing CGI.

I'm not sure the word "miscast" could ever be used to apply to someone with the range of Edward Norton. The actor can play both sides of the good/evil coin - heroes and villains. In this case, he's the former, an affable guy whom nearly everyone except Leopold likes. We find ourselves rooting for the illusionist from the beginning, and much of that is Norton's doing. Likewise, Rufus Sewell can play blackguards and virtuous types with equal effectiveness. Here, he develops Leopold into a twisted, jealous, petty individual. Cast against type, Paul Giamatti doesn't strain our credulity as the self-assured police inspector who comes to sympathize with Eisenheim. The film's real acting revelation, however, is Jessica Biel. Who would have suspected she could be so graceful and charming in this simple period role? (This apparently is a role she campaigned hard for; she saw it as a chance to show Hollywood she's an actress - an aim at which she succeeds.)

Burger does an excellent job of keeping the audience guessing - is Eisenheim a master trickster or does he control supernatural forces? We don't find out the answer until the closing moments, but it's enjoyable to guess along the way. Taken as a whole, The Illusionist is a parfait - it looks great, goes down pleasantly, and is a nice treat. However, it's also a little on the insubstantial side. There's nothing wrong with that, but for some reason viewers associate period pieces with intellectually dense art. So, if nothing else, Burger has proven that it's as easy to have fun with a movie set in the 1900s as in the 2000s, and the film's appeal isn't all smoke and mirrors.

Illusionist, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1