Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell
Running Time: 110 min.
*** (out of ****)
Some people don't like surprises. They don't like to be tricked and prefer everything laid out for them in a nice, logical, orderly fashion. If you think about it that makes perfect sense because when we're surprised we lose control. No one likes to lose control. This conceit is at the center of Neil Burger's The Illusionist, an often fascinating film based loosely on Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim The Illusionist" about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna who finds himself the target of an evil Crown Prince and the city's corrupt Chief Inspector who are both eager to shut down his act, partly out of vengeance, but mostly out of jealousy and stupidity. The movie doesn't break any new ground and is actually pretty workmanlike in how it unfolds, but it does give you the chance to witness one of the best actors of our generation at the top of his game and marks the arrival of an actress who's now worth keeping an eye on for more than how she looks in tight jeans and a tank top.
Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, who as child falls in love with Sophie (Jessica Biel), a dutchess far above his social standing. When she's forbidden to see him, Eisenheim flees and travels the world perfecting his magic. He returns fifteen years later a magician and master illusionist, only to discover Sophie is now engaged to marry Crown Prince Leopold (a frightening Rufus Sewell). With Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti in a return to form after the disasterous Lady in the Water) on Lepold's payroll they soon discover the past relationship between Eisenheim and Sophie, threatening to end his magic for good by exposing his secrets.
Meanwhile, the former lovers pick up where they left off rekindling their relationship as Sophie plans to leave the diabolical Leopold. All these elements explode in a brutal crime that pushes the story forward with a few twists and turns, some expected, some not. The Illusionist often seems to be more than what it is and that's in no small part due to the performances and the conviction writer/director Neil Burger brings to the story. Having not read the short story from which this is based I'm guessing a lot was added by him. He also shoots the film in an interesting way, giving it a kind of washed-out old fashioned look that compliments the era and setting nicely.
This is Burger's second directorial feature after 2003's incredible fake documentary, Interview With The Assassin, which hypothesizes an interview with the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination. I urge anyone who hasn't seen that film to do so immediately as it's bold picture driven by a premise as innovative as any I've seen in any film in a long time. The Illusionist, like that film, has a twist at the end that I obviously won't give away, but I will say it's definitely not impossible to see coming if you remember what this movie, at its core, is actually about.
Lately magic has made excellent fodder for movie material and it's not hard to see why, as it definitely lends itself to twists, secrets and reveals that go hand in hand with experience we all want to have when we see a film. It presents the opportunity for the filmmaker to use his own sleight of hand to trick the audience and take them for a ride. Supposedly top illusionists were consulted for the film and all the tricks do look real and authentic, adding to the effectiveness of the story. They even revealed the secret to one very common magic trick, which makes us all feel like idiots for not knowing how it was done. For once during the film, I could empathize with the Crown Prince.
It's getting a bit redundant these days to praise Edward Norton as an actor, but I'd be remiss if I didn't do it again here. I don't think there's a role this man is not capable of playing and he may be the best working actor today without an Oscar on his mantle. While this isn't his best performance, it's a strong one as he effortlessly slides into this role making you care about Eisenheim and his fate. I really liked what Paul Giamatti does as Uhl because he gives you the impression that even though his mission is to destroy and discredit Eisenheim, he slowly develops a fascination and respect for the man as his investigation escalates. He's corrupt, but he's a good soul who knows what he's doing is wrong. The question becomes whether his ambition or conscience will win out.
It's a treat watching two pros like Norton and Giamatti go at it. The real surprise in this movie is Jessica Biel, who really does an excellent job in what is essentially a period love story, something I would have never imagined she'd excel at. She brings a grace and dignity to the role that was surprising and more than holds her own in every scene with Norton. That decision to pose for Gear magazine years ago to get out of her 7th Heaven contract in hindsight was a brilliant career move. She's really coming into her own as an actress and she gives the best performance of her young career here.
Of course comparisons are going to be made between this film and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, which I haven't seen yet. I'll be reviewing that film next month and from what I heard it's a lot different than this, so it should be interesting to see how they stack up. The Illusionist is far from unforgettable, but it is well done and clever, cementing Neil Burger as a filmmaker to watch.