Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Illusionist

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★ ★ ★
Hats off to director Neil Burger. He bit off a big challenge with The Illusionist, and he pulled it off admirably. This is a very liberal adaptation of a Steven Millhauser story about a magician in Victorian era in Vienna. Shot entirely in the Czech Republic at gorgeously befitting locations, this is a beautifully made period piece, complete with genuine turn-of-the-century illusions, a wonderful soundtrack, lovely cinematography and a great story.

Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, the magician who lost his first love as a young boy because they were separated by classes, but years later when he is touring Vienna rediscovers her in the form of Princess Sophie (Jessica Beil). Unfortunately, Sophie is engaged to be married to the unseemly Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who immediately takes a dislike to Eisenheim, mainly because he can’t figure out his extraordinary illusions. Prince Leopold, not one to do his own dirty work, relies upon Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to handle Eisenheim.

Edward Norton is great as Eisenheim. (That shouldn’t be surprising as he’s turned in some truly remarkable performances in the past—Fight Club, American History XXX, Rounders and The Score.) And of course Paul Giamatti is excellent as well, although his role is something of a departure for him. But perhaps most surprising is Biel, who is not only radiantly beautiful in this movie, but shows suprising talent as well, and holds her screen presence toe to toe with Norton.

Burger has managed to pull off really a remarkable film. The plot moves along steadily. The tonality is remarkably steady, as there is a forboding dreariness to it that perfectly matches the subject matter and the period. (In the same way that David Lynch did with The Elephant Man.) The illusions are captivating and almost believable. The love story is touching. And Eisenheim is a compelling and sympathetic hero, blessed with such unconventional heroic talents that the entire movie feels fresh and alive.


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