The Illusionist

There’s something about magic. Maybe it’s the intellectual challenge of trying to figure out how a particular trick is done, or maybe the opposite–suspending disbelief and surrendering to the mystery. Of course, there’s also a darker, more sinister side to magicians that thrills.

I gather that there are several magician themed films in the pipeline right now. The Illusionist will probably not be the best of them, nor will it be the worst. In my two plus years of writing reviews, I’ve learned that the hardest type of film to write about is one that doesn’t strike you one way or the other. The Illusionist is a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours on a hot sweaty summer afternoon. But it didn’t spark any emotion. I can’t rhapsodize about it’s charms nor bitterly bemoan the waist of my time. I saw it; I enjoyed it and I’ll probably forget it in a year.

Here’s the deal. The story is set in turn of the century Vienna, at that time part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. It’s a very autocratic state, the kind where criticism of the Emperor or any member of the aristocracy is ruthlessly punished. Rules must be obeyed and one the strictest is no fraternizing above your class. As a teen Eisenheim does just that, falling for a future Duchess. He has to leave Vienna in a hurry.

For the next few years, he tours the east, learning the art of magic and illusion. When he is ready, he returns to his home city and creates a sensation with his elegant illusions and the philosophical musings that accompany them. Of course, he encounters his old love, who is now engaged to the cruel crown prince.

This film has a twist at the end and if I go much further, I’ll give it away. It’s not a shocker. In fact, if you think you’ve figured it out just from watching the trailer, you have. I know I did and I’m not very good at figuring out twists.

The acting is OK. Edward Norton as Eisenheim is suitably mysterious, if a little cold. He has no chemistry with Jessica Biel, his countess. She’s beautiful and regal, but really isn’t given much to do. Rufus Sewell follows the cruel ambitious nobleman section of the villain’s playbook to the letter. The only multi layered and involving performance is Paul Giamatti’s Inspector Ulm, a smart man, more interested in avoiding trouble than in punishment, but who also knows that he’s the tool of a repressive and corrupt regime. I can’t recall Giamatti ever turning in a bad performance.

The Illusionist is a beautiful film, shot in eastern Europe with large medieval buildings in the background. The photography is dark and textured. The pace of the film is stately. And the setting is unusual for an American film.

So, go see it. Or not. It really won’t make a difference in your life.


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September 2006
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