The Illusionist ***1/2


“The Illusionist” is one of the best acted movies of 2006 thus far.  It offers an array of Oscar worthy performances from the likes of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti.  It is also beautifully shot, bringing turn of the century Vienna to life. 

“The Illusionist” tells the story of a magician who uses his powers to try and shake up the royal family in Vienna.  Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, who performs tricks that must be enormously difficult for a magician in that era.  But his spells become a smash hit, even luring the Crown Prince to one of his shows.  He is accompanied by Sophie (Jessica Biel), his fiancé. 

During a show the Leopold, the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) offers up Sophie when a volunteer from the audience is needed.  What the crown prince does not know is that Eisenheim and Sophie knew each other as kids.  There was a time when they were in love, but because they were from different class’, their love was stripped away from them.  At the moment she steps on the stage, they both realize who the other is but say nothing.  Not soon after their love begins again and they become involved a deadly game of secrecy from the Crown Prince.

From there I will not reveal anymore about the plot.  I will say that it does become quite predictable in the end, but there is a genuine element of mystery in almost every scene. 

Director Neil Burger really establishes himself as a bit of a showman.  The best scenes in this movie involve the stage shows that Eisenheim puts on.  Watch how Burger gets the intense focus from the crowd as well as the genuine reactions.  He also shows a nice hand for drama as he pulls some serious performances from all the actors involved here.

Edward Norton has been severely underused since he came on the scene in “Primal Fear” in 1996.  He seems to be quite choosy with his roles, which is good.  He hasn’t really found himself involved in anything that was awful.  Here he finds just the right balance between mysterious and loving as a man who has been wounded for many years.

Paul Giamatti just continues to impress.  Here he plays a police officer who not only enforces the law, but acts as a sort of personal assistant to the Crown Prince.  But you can see in his face that he wants to do the right thing.  He is torn between his duty and what is seemingly good for his career.  Rufus Sewell as the Crown Prince is yet another performance where you loath him even before he has done anything dastardly.

What I took from this movie was a sense of classic filmmaking.  It used to be movies like this were in the mainstream.  Where it depended on the actors and their performances to make a film work or not.  Think of anything that Jack Nicholson or Denzel Washington has done and you will know what I mean.


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