Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Illusionist

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - An old-fashioned entertainment set in 1900 Vienna, "The Illusionist" features a standout performance by Edward Norton as the magician Eisenheim, who may or may not have supernatural powers.

Outstanding production values and mysterious subject matter give the film a surprisingly opulent feel for an independent Sundance entry, which could work to its advantage in some mainstream markets.

Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser and written and directed by Neil Burger ("Interview With the Assassin"), "The Illusionist" is like a dreamscape existing between sleep and consciousness, the old world and the new. It's no accident that the story, with an undercurrent of inexplicable psychic phenomenon, takes place in Freud's Vienna.

In a prologue we see the young Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson), the son of a carpenter, having a chance encounter with a traveling magician and finding his calling. As a young and novice practitioner, he attracts the attention of the lovely Sophie, scion of an aristocratic family. Their bond is indeed one of those magical things that cannot be explained. Then, when her family forcefully separates them, Eisenheim travels the world learning his trade.

Years later he is back in Vienna and the talk of the town. Sporting a distinguished goatee and displaying a great inner stillness, Eisenheim commands the grand stage. There always has been an undercurrent of mystery about Norton, so he was an excellent choice for the role, and after a relatively low profile for the past few years, he reminds you what a powerful performer he is.

One evening a beautiful woman volunteers for a trick on stage and Eisenheim is stricken: it's Sophie (Jessica Biel) all grown up. Unfortunately, she is now the mistress of the power-hungry Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Consequently, Eisenheim falls on the wrong side of the law, enforced by chief inspector Uhl. As the inspector, Paul Giamatti is never really sinister but with an accent and hat he is able to convey a darker side to go with his innate likability. As Eisenheim violates the laws of the land, and perhaps the laws of nature, the story is told through the inspector's sometimes incredulous and misleading eyes.

Sophie and Eisenheim consummate their relationship, and in a fit of jealous rage the Prince slays her -- or does he? This turns out to be the central mystery of the film, which tests whether Eisenheim is a mere illusionist or possessor of some secret power. Sharp audience members may figure out the answer long before the ending, which somewhat diminishes the fun of the film.

Still, with Ricky Jay as the magic adviser the stunts themselves -- an orange tree that blossoms onstage, a sword that stands upright in the ground, spirits from the dead stalking the theater -- are performed authentically as they would have been done at the turn of the last century. Burger purposely used little CGI for the magic and tries to follow a trick from beginning to end without cutting away, so the illusions can be experienced as they would have been by the audience at that time.

Veteran cinematographer Dick Pope captures all the grace notes and dark corners of Prague sitting in for Vienna and Ondrej Nakvasil's production design, especially for the prince's palace and the theater where Eisenheim performs, has created a stage both real and fanciful where the human heart is the most mysterious thing.


Eisenheim: Edward Norton

Chief inspector Uhl: Paul Giamatti

Sophie: Jessica Biel

Crown Prince Leopold: Rufus Sewell

Josef Fisher: Eddie Marsan

Jurka: Jake Wood

Wiligut: Tom Fisher

Doctor: Karl Johnson

Director: Neil Burger; Screenwriter: Neil Burger; Based on a story by: Steven Millhauser; Producers: Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari, Cathy Schulman; Executive producers: Ted Liebowitz, Joey Horvitz, Jane Garnett, Tom Nunan; Director of photography: Dick Pope; Production designer: Ondrej Nekvasil; Music: Philip Glass; Costume designer: Ngila Dickson; Editor: Naomi Geraghty.



Anonymous jer said...

Now this is odd. I've been following the film adaptation of The Prestige (which was really enjoyable) for some time now, and Ed Norton has always been attached as one of the magicians in that film. Has there just been a year or so of confusion on the part of internet movie news sites, or is Mr. Norton really in two turn of the century magician movies?

4:32 PM  

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