The Illusionist (2006) / Mystery-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, Jessica Biel, Eddie Marsan
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Neil Burger (based on the short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist", by Steven Millhauser)
Review published August 21, 2006

Trick or treat?  It's both.

2006 marks the year that Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways) would star in, not one, but two live-action fairy tales that aren't really fairy tales in the traditional sense.  Although Lady in the Water is the more high profile of the two, The Illusionist is the most committed to form, with a prince, a would-be princess, and a wizard, all engaged in a dangerous love triangle.  In my opinion, The Illusionist is also the better of the two films, and while clearly borrowing many ideas from other well-known works of fiction, it succeeds by giving us that sense of mystery, romance, magic, and beauty that are the marks of nearly all great fairy tales, and does so without leaving the world of reality -- or does it?

Edward Norton (Kingdom of Heaven, The Italian Job) plays the illusionist of the title, who as a youth once fell in love with an upper-class girl named Sophie (Biel, Stealth), which was largely forbidden for someone of his lower-class berth.  After the relationship is dissolved by Sophie's controlling mother, the boy virtually disappears by traveling the world, learning the tricks of the magic trade, becoming one of the most talented illusionists the world has ever seen, now adopting the name of "Eisenheim".  His feats of fancy become so popular that it attracts the audience of Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell, Tristan + Isolde), a smart, calculating, and sometimes cruel man, so insatiable in his pursuit of learning how Eisenheim performs his astonishing tricks that he challenges him in front of his own people, including that of his bride-to-be, Sophie, the girl Eisenheim once loved.  As the only thing in this world he ever cared about, Eisenheim soon finds himself wanting to help Sophie escape her plight, but the tenacious corrupt law enforcer, Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), is watching his every move, waiting for his chance to bring down the elusive magician once and for all.

Although The Illusionist, like most fables, has an air of familiarity that will probably not allow for too many surprises for more seasoned moviegoers, the elegant way that it is presented makes up for any derivative inclinations in the story.  The acting is uniformly good, with Norton and Giamatti working wonderfully in their respective roles, especially when they're together, and even Jessica Biel impresses in what might be her first truly serious role, and does so with a convincing European accent to boot.  It's only Neil Burger's second feature film, but he develops his tale of fantasy like a seasoned professional, captivating us with his slowly enveloping tale of magic and romance that plays well for adults, even though it has the basic plot of a children's story at its heart.  Burger skillfully adapts from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser's short story, fleshing out the characters fully, while also keeping the pace of the film brisk enough to keep our interest, but patient enough that we feel the quiet, sad story that resides underneath this story of forbidden love.

Burger is blessed with an excellent score by Philip Glass (Undertow, Taking Lives), whose traditional style of haunting elegance works wonderfully in concert with the thematic material of beauty, tragedy, and the fantastic.  Also worth noting are the sumptuous visuals provided by veteran cinematographer Dick Pope (Nicholas Nickleby, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing), who has slowly but surely been putting together quite an estimable career, despite never having won, or even been nominated for an Academy Award.  All of this talent has been pulled together for the minuscule budget just under $17 million, which is almost unheard of these days, especially given the caliber of the actors, veteran crew, and quality of the special effects, costumes, props, and sets throughout -- how they could do so much with so little is the real magic trick.

Although you'd fully expect any film centering around an illusionist to have its share of twists for the audience, and many will be hip to just what's up Eisenheim's sleeve at all times, when all of the cards are laid out on the table, the result is still satisfying.  Just like the best of fairy tales, the enduring qualities don't come from the ending, but in the manner in which they are told, and The Illusionist utilizes classic narrative technique to get its modest story across, without dwelling too much on gimmickry and distracting side stories.  While the story itself feels cobbled together from many other classic works, Burger works the film like any classic illusionist would, challenging us to all to delve right in and  inspect up close just what's going on.  Even if we know where the act is going and what the "voila" moment will be, we can still admire the finesse and mastery with which this mesmerizing bit of trickery is delivered. 

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo