The Illusionist feels like a relic from a lost era at the movies. Set in early 1900’s Vienna, Neil Burger’s film truly feels like it belongs in a 1940’s throwback theater with five cent popcorn. It’s a big enough rarity in itself to find a solid crime/drama these days at the movies, but The Illusionist satiates our hunger for a compelling period piece.
Based upon the short story by Steve Millhauser, the film centers on Eisenheim (Norton), a master illusionist, whose tricks defy both common sense and our understanding of physics. He enthralls nightly packed houses as people all over the city try to figure out how he does his apparitions. Things get dicey, however, when he reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Sophie (Biel). She comes from a much higher social standing and is currently engaged to Crown Price Leopold (Sewell), a controlling monster who, with the help of a corrupt investigator, Uhl (Giamatti), sets out to undermine Eisenheim’s credibility and character.
Burger does an excellent job of keeping things chugging along after a slow start. The film really has something to offer everyone. The magic tricks are sensationally photographed and the story elements are bound to keep discerning viewers involved and captivated. The lush locale had me completely enveloped, as Burger’s direction fully brings out the beauty of the time. The Illusionist has the look of an art house film but has the narrative range to please a wider range of viewers than the average limited release.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a stellar cast on your team. Edward Norton, who has become much pickier with his film choices, lends a solid presence and foundation for the film. While the role of Eisenheim doesn’t test his abilities in the same fashion as his performances in American History X and Primal Fear, it is nevertheless a cogent effort. Paul Giamatti is given the best dialogue and most dynamic presence as Uhl, a serious man whose confusion over just how Eisenheim accomplishes his magic often leads to dry comic relief. Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell also turn in worthy performances.
Those who are ready for a Fall release in August will get their wish with The Illusionist. It is an entertaining, first-rate production with fine performances and an engrossing story. In the dog days of an unexceptional summer, The Illusionist offers up an attractive package of intrigue and class to the likes of which we’ve seen very rarely this year.
Studio: Yari Film Group
Length: 110 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.
Theatrical Release: August 18, 2006
Directed by: Neil Burger
Written by: Neil Burger. Based upon the short story “Eisenheim The Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser.
Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood