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Czech Republic/USA 2006
Directed by
Neil Burger
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
3.5 stars

Illusionist, The (2006)

Synopsis: An Austrian illusionist uses his skills to save his childhood love from a proposed loveless marriage to a cruel Count.

At the turn of the century, there was standing room only in theatres for illusionists and magicians. With new technology such as electricity and moving pictures coupled with distraction and sleight of hand, ever newer illusions could be created that seemed to walk a fine line between visual trickery and the truly magical or supernatural.

Edward Norton is Eisenheim. the illusionist. His contained presence, obsidian eyes, neat goatee and general inscrutability are a perfect match for the character. The film opens with a mysterious performance followed by his arrest by Chief Inspector Uhl. (played by a bewhiskered and sombre Paul Giamatti) who then recounts to his master, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) how things went badly awry since Eisenheim arrived in Vienna and fell for the Crown Prince’s fiancé, Sophie. If these events don’t strike readers of Steven Millhauser’s short story as familiar, that would be because the director made most of them up. Still, the screenplay does a fair job of starting with the Millhauser’s illusionist who is ever outdoing himself and wraps a credible romance drama around it.

In an effort to capture the look and feel of the time, the film sometimes gets carried away with a palette inspired by the autochrome colour effects of early cinema, and overuse of the ‘olde-worlde’ closing-iris effect. Despite this, the look of the time is impressively done.

The film is neither much helped or hindered by a surprisingly unremarkable Philip Glass score. Nonetheless, we are quickly drawn into flashbacks of Eisenheim as a child meeting a magician sitting under a tree and finding inspiration for his future career. Uhl recounts that this mysterious encounter ended with either the magician and/or the tree vanishing, no one is now certain. This sets the theme of the impossible with Burger taking illusions of the day and pushing them towards the fantastic. It seems distracting that Eisenheim the illusionist has a real bag of tricks yet the illusion itself is filmed as a CGI effect, although perhaps this is meant to represent the effect on his audience’s willing imagination.

The film draws one into the strange, quiet world of Eisenheim and the development of his bitter but subtle power play against the Crown Prince. Eisenheim is besotted with Sophie (Jessica Biel) despite her somewhat vapid presence but when things go wrong it is fairly obvious that a far bigger illusion is in the making.

It is, however, Norton and Giamatti who have the real chemistry as the two men circle each other in a tense intersection of wills whilst the rather hammy Crown Prince glowers in the background as events take their course and an illusory murder mystery develops. Who if anyone was murdered, and who, ultimately, does the murdering? As the roles and responsibilities of the different players unfolds, the biggest question might be who was the least ethical of them all?

FYI: Coincidentally, The Prestige, another period film about magic, was released the same year. 



















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