The Illusionist

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            “The Illusionist” is a movie lover’s dream.  Old fashioned in concept and atmosphere, modern in technique, it is beautiful to watch.  It is literally wrapped in the golden glow of an old master painting as it becomes that best of all things:  a romantic mystery involving murder and court intrigue in fin de siecle  Vienna (actually filmed in Prague).  It is a rollicking good story with an overlay of magic – a puzzle that invites you to try to fit the pieces together and then makes the task tantalizingly difficult.

            The film opens on stage in Vienna where Eisenheim the Illusionist has drawn an impassioned crowd to the theater for reasons that unfold in a flashback story that will hold us in enchanted suspense.  If there are holes in the plot, they are irrelevant; if there are slow spots, we don’t care.  The atmosphere has caught us up and rolled us back to old Vienna where writer/direct Neil Burger spins nothing less than a small historical subplot that may or may not undermine the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

            We meet an adolescent pair – Sophie, an aristocrat, and Eisenheim, the cabinet maker’s son.    They meet secretly, discovered repeatedly by family and employees.  Separated for years, they meet again in the Viennese theater where the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) offers Sophie (Jessica Biel) as an on stage volunteer for one of Eisenheim’s tricks.  And so it begins.  Will Sophie’s approaching engagement to the prince be thwarted?  Will the illusionist who has captured Vienna turn the miracle essential for his union with Sophie?  Will Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), henchman to the prince, ruin their plan?

            The magic of the movie is that greatest of tools:  mystery.  Every character is given as few lines as possible, and those they speak are made to count.  The result is that we do not get to know anyone very well.  All of them are unpredictable.  What a wonderful thing in this age of psychological motivation to be free of explanations of behavior.  In this mysteriousness, it is easy to imagine that for people intrigued by magic, the mystery is tinged with fear.  The faces in the audience of that Viennese theater are tense with anticipation and touched by fear.  Economy of language is director Burger’s magic trick, and all his actors are bound up in it.     

            Rufus Sewell’s Leopold is a classic of weakness, dishonor, and cruelty.  Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Inspector Uhl is nuanced rather than obvious.  Here is the versatile Giamatti reminding of us of Claude Raines and Peter Lorre in the melodramas of the 40s that we love so well.  Edward Norton proves yet again that he can do anything by conjuring this magician who has tempted a swelling crowd of Viennese who become believers.  When Inspector Uhl confides “Perhaps there’s truth in this illusion,”  you will smile broadly in your own confusion, confident in the powers of Eisenheim the Illusionist.


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