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Publicity Stills of "The Illusionist"
(Courtesy from Archer Entertainment)

Genre: Supernatural mystery/Period Drama
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell
RunTime: 1 hr 49 mins
Released By: Archer Entertainment APPL & GV
Rating: PG

Release Date: 18 January 2007

Synopsis :

A supernatural mystery set at the turn of the 19th century, The Illusionist is a potent combination of romance, politics and magic. The film stars Academy Award® nominees Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X) and Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways) as two men pitted against each other in a battle of wits.

Norton plays a mysterious stage magician, Eisenheim, who bends nature’s laws to his will in front of awestruck crowds. Giamatti co-stars as Vienna’s shrewd Chief Inspector Uhl, a man committed to uphold the law and for whom magic holds no place in his ordered world.

Jessica Biel (Elizabethtown, Stealth) shares the screen as the beautiful and enigmatic Sophie von Teschen, who finds her future inexorably altered when she encounters the man called Eisenheim, who comes dangerously close to unlocking the dark secret of the monarchy that she holds.

Movie Review:

A film about magicians. Hmm...where have i heard that one before?

If you have chanced upon Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, a much acclaimed (and probably deservingly so) film about two rival magicians, one who’s a master of his craft and the other who performs real magic, two traits conflated into Norton’s magician in The Illusionist. And the problem of course, is that when it comes to comparing Nolan with any other director, nine times out of ten, the Nolan pic will command more excitement, a theory only exacerbated by the fact that the trailer for The Prestige is a shoe-in for the best trailer of the year, garnering this encomium from its ability to apprise the viewers of the basic plot and characters while engendering an exhilarating gust of excitement, yet giving away nothing seemingly ruinous.

On the other end, The Illusionist trailer hints at a film with epic scope, with a love story that could alter the fate of an empire, intimating a dark secret that could easily confuse viewers into thinking it’s a horror film. The film, based on Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Steven Millhauser’s short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, which centers on Eisenheim (Norton), a mysterious and at times tenebrous magician who is able to perform mesmerizing and putatively impossible tricks. More so, in fact, than a regular magician, for while a regular magician’s tricks rest almost visibly on a thick sleeve or trick door, Eisenheim’s tricks seem spawned from a child’s imagination, where the concept of time and space is a mere whimsical thought in the face of magic.

Shot by cinematographer Dick Pop, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, a courtly yet enigmatic magician whose uncanny powers hold Viennese audiences spellbound—including professed cynic, Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti). Eisenheim's renown eventually attracts the interest of arrogant Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who volunteers his beautiful fiancée, Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel), to assist Eisenheim onstage. What Leopold doesn't know is that Sophie and Eisenheim have a history. Childhood sweethearts, they haven't seen each other in years, but there's an immediate, electric charge between them. Their deep, passionate connection poses a grave threat to Leopold's politically motivated engagement to Sophie—marrying her will insure his ascension to the throne. He therefore orders Chief Inspector Uhl to expose Eisenheim as a fraud, but after shadowing the illusionist, even Uhl begins to wonder if Eisenheim may in fact have genuine paranormal abilities.

But all may not be so rosy. With some rather mixed bag of performance and a reveal neglectfully unoriginal, there are some eye-catching sequences, including a faded, sepia-toned flashback to Eisenheim's and Sophie's early days together that sumptuously looks like it might have been shot in the late 1800s. Individual images are also indelible, such as a wall in Leopold's lair overstuffed with antlers and deer heads that creepily encapsulates his misanthropic nature. The woodsy exteriors, aided by its on-location Czech Republic lensing, offset their tranquility with a foreboding sense of danger.

Cast way against type, Giamatti is spectacular. He makes Uhl’s duality absolutely believable, the goodness of his soul battling viciously for control of his heart with the driving pangs of a blind ambition which have lifted him out of the doldrums of his life’s original station yet have also made him assistant to a monster. The fragile friendship he shares with Eisenheim awakens the dormant shards of the inspector’s conscience, their battle of wills enough to make him remember justice is a thing actually worth fighting, and maybe dying, for. Giamatti nails this internal conflict spectacularly, the actor digging his heels into the role so completely his portrayal feels as lived in and genuine as wearing a favorite shirt to bed.

The rest of the cast is solid if a bit uninspiring. Norton is an intriguing enigma as Eisenheim, yet Burger only allows the audience precious little insight into either the man or his motives making it difficult to ever care for him when things start closing in on their darkest hour. Sewell does what he can to make Leopold more than a stock, power-mad villain, while Biel is much better here than you’d have ever expected based upon her work in things like “Stealth” or “Seventh Heaven.” The problem is neither has near enough screen time to make little more than a superficial impression, their characters e as one dimensional and hollow at the end as they were at the start.

But even with these strikes against it I cannot dismiss what the director has tried to accomplish. In many ways, Berger has attempted to do for period mysteries what Bryan Singer did for modern day criminal noir with “The Usual Suspects.” While his characters could use a little bit more work, his handling of the picture’s central themes and ambiguities border on the masterful.

In the end, Burger and Millhauser provide a "solution" to the film's central mystery that may strike some as prosaic, but that doesn't much compromise the overall effect. Beautifully acted and handsomely mounted, this gorgeous period piece is an intelligent and intriguing exploration of "the dark arts"—less dependent on mere hocus-pocus than on the convincing journey of the soul undertaken by its hero.

Movie Rating:

(A beautiful captivating trick to a flawed illusion.)

Review by Lokman B S

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