Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Illusionist (review)

Cinema is one of the oldest forms of mass deception, if you will, and writer-director Neil Burger (Interview With the Assassin) carries on the tradition quite effectively with The Illusionist.

Adapted from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, Burger’s film is a compelling, intelligently acted period piece with a plot that itself is an act of illusion. It’s a nice break from the bloated event movies and juvenilia that dominated theaters during the long, silly summer season.

The film’s world, evocatively brought to life by cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy, Nicholas Nickleby) at locations in and around Prague, is Vienna, circa the late 1800s.

As shot by Pope, who was inspired by the autochrome photography process invented by
pioneering filmmakers/magicians the Lumiere brothers, the city is a place of cosmopolitan beauty – glistening cobblestone streets lit by gas lamps; beautifully appointed theaters; lavish palaces – and dangerous political machinations.

Injecting himself into the city of Freud and Mahler is a magician, Eisenheim the
Illusionist (Edward Norton, appropriately intense and mysterious), whose powers seem to border on the supernatural. He appears to make a seedling instantly grow into an orange tree, to bid two butterflies to carry a handkerchief and to summon up a lifelike image in a mirror.

(Remarkably, these illusions and others that are even more complex were overseen by sleight-of-hand performer Ricky Jay and photographed without the benefit of CG effects).

Eisenheim’s act, in particular the unspoken suggestion that his mystical abilities could be used against the empire, raises the ire of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, regal and frightening). Leopold, embroiled in a plot to overthrow his father, also is unhappy about the relationship between his beloved, the duchess Sophie Van Teschen (Jessica Biel) and the illusionist. Sophie and Eisenheim, then known as Edward, had been childhood friends, as revealed during the prologue.

Tracking all of the strange and dangerous goings-on is Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a police inspector and amateur magician who stands to gain a political windfall if and when Leopold becomes king. As an ambitious loyalist, Uhl is even prepared to help cover up a murder, until he has a change of heart.

“Are you completely corrupt?’ Eisenheim asks Uhl at one point during the criminal investigation. Turns out, he’s not, and the awakening of his conscience results in a tragedy that couldn’t have been predicted.

The Illusionist is a bracing story with a conclusion that asks viewers to suspend their disbelief. And we do so, gladly, thanks to the superb artistry at work – finely shaded performances, clever direction, blue-chip visual design and cinematography – during the preceding 100 minutes.

(A variation of this review will appear in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and other newspapers)

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