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The Illusionist

A long time ago, audiences still had a sense of wonder. Though it seems quaint now, people would sit still and strain to listen in small theaters as men with a sense of wordplay and the ability to misdirect attention held them rapt. Perhaps it was because the people were more willing to believe then, but writer/director Neil Burger manages to recreate that feeling with The Illusionist, and for the most part holds us rapt, too.

Set at turn of the 19th Century Vienna, The Illusionist balances the old age of wonder with a new age of cynicism. Trapped in between them, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) keeps order in the city on behalf of, and perhaps in spite of, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). This very modern royalty has a problem with "…thinking too much," but throughout most of the film, it's really thinking too much about himself.

Leopold gets vexed by Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), an entertainer (at first) who has captured the attention of the people. The film begins with his arrest by Uhl, and winds backward explaining the legend of Eisenheim and piecing together that the magician had been the first love of "Sophie" (Jessica Biehl), the Duchess Leopold intends to marry for political gain.

Yet that all makes the film's plot sound ordinary, and perhaps it is. But The Illusionist has style, atmosphere, and an insistent sense of longing from the characters at its center that keeps transcending the mundane plot elements.

To steep us in the mood, Burger shoots many scenes as if they were in a silent film. The opening titles have the ornate script and shaky positioning of early title cards. Scenes shift with off-center fuzzy irises closing and opening, on lighting that diffuses and flattens sets. Even the couple of instances of slow motion footage look hand-cranked and lack that feeling of trying to look cool; instead, they just subtly underscore an emotional moment.

It also helps that Phillip Glass scores the film in a very old-fashioned way, taking more cues from Tchaikovsky's work for Eisenstein than his own earlier dissonance. The music never intrudes, but allows the fragile moments to resonate all the more.

And that's the wonder of The Illusionist. Through most of the film, Burger builds something ethereal, even as characters wonder over whether or not Eisenheim truly has magical powers. The first half makes it clear as clockwork, but as events progress things cloud over, and we want to believe that somehow Eisenheim has something of the supernatural about him.

At any rate, having two of our best character actors anchor the film makes for no illusion. As Uhl, Giamatti inhabits a dialect and a skin that resembles work he's done before, and yet feels utterly new from him. The "son of a butcher" who may be the closest confidante of Leopold shambles among the different social strata with deceptive ease, steely underneath his softness.

Facing Giamatti and underplaying even with his light Viennese accent, Norton takes a showy role and shows restraint. The result is powerful, letting us inside the character in a way that Norton hasn't done in a long time. He's matched in quiet intensity, by the way, with Aaron Johnson playing Eisenheim as a boy. The younger actor comes off just as well as the veteran.

On the surface, it would seem that one actor here just doesn't belong. Yet Biehl, who just a couple of years ago looked to be little more than a scream queen, has a breakthrough role here. She looks completely at home in the time period, displaying grace and charm that she never needed when getting chainsawed in Texas.

Despite having Norton train with the master illusionist Ricky Jay, Burger does give in to the urge to use CG effects, and it's disappointing. One illusion becomes a great white whale for Uhl, and even though the film repeatedly shows detailed plans on how it could be done on stage, it's clearly a computer when it didn't have to be.

Burger also rushes his ending, jarring after the perfect pacing for 90% of the film. Yet these flaws hardly tip the scale against this elegant romantic thriller. Despite its illusions, The Illusionist is that rare solid effort among the usual lightweight summer fare.



Derek McCaw

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