Written and Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewel
Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.
Parental Notes: Fine for teens and most preteens; neither the violence nor the sexuality is very graphic.
“The Illusionist” is a masterful blending of familiar themes — the love triangle, the mystery, the peasant boy in love with a princess, and several others. It is a period piece, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and although it has moments where its modern origins peer through, it creates a lovely illusion of historicity. The rich costumes and sets are beautifully filmed, and those looking for a period romance with some supernatural mysteries thrown in for seasoning will not be disappointed.
The hero of the film is Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton, “The Italian Job”). He left his childhood home as the son of a woodworker and traveled the world, learning to create amazing illusions. As an adult, he arrives in Vienna and creates a huge sensation with his stage performances. Skeptical Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewel, “Tristan + Isolde”) becomes determined to expose him as a fraud, and sets Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, “Lady in the Water”) on the case. When Leopold himself attends a performance with his fiancee Sophie (Jessica Biel, “Elizabethtown”) in tow, Sophie and Eisenheim realize that they know each other — as youngsters they were in love and planned to run off together before Sophie’s attendants foiled their plan and dragged her back to her life as a countess. Sophie and Eisenheim decide to escape together again, but now a more formidable obstacle stands in their way than her attendants: Leopold, who is violent, cruel, and prone to rages. It seems impossible that they could escape Leopold’s clutches, but when one is an illusionist by trade, nothing is what it seems.
Norton, Giamatti, and Sewel are immensely talented actors, and bringing them into a fairly straightforward and ultimately lightweight film like this is almost overkill. However, their performances are modulated to the tone of the script, and lift it away from its occasionally pedestrian plotting and up into a more serious realm. Norton’s expression never betrays whether Eisenheim really is able to perform miracles or is merely a trickster; we have to figure that out for ourselves. Sewel is horrifyingly effective and keeps Leopold from being a mere melodrama villain by turning him into something more frightening: a real person. Giamatti makes Uhl believable as well: a mere butcher’s son who has risen to associate with royalty through being a very good policeman, and who never forgets his place. Biel’s character is a bit on the modern side, but Biel brings a grace to her that helps us believe Sophie is truly a rebellious young noblewoman and not just a modern gal in fancy clothes.
The magic in the film is mostly created with Hollywood FX rather than with old-fashioned illusionist tricks, but most of it is breathtaking. Eisenheim creates walking ghosts, growing trees, magically suspended fruit, even an immovable sword, all with a few gestures and a look of focus. It’s something sure to bring a smile to the face of any fan of movie magic. The sets and costumes are equally lovely, full of rich textures and deep colors. The buildings look as though they’ve been standing for centuries, and the clothes — especially some of Sophie’s — are stunning.
“The Illusionist” is a solid period film suitable for those who are willing to overlook occasional modern touches in favor of enjoying the magic of cinema. This is a movie for those who love to be swept up in illusions — the illusions of stage magic, of movies, of love.