Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Illusionist (2006)

A Mystifying Screen Marvel

- In Victorian-age Vienna, a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) comes eye-to-eye with his long lost childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel) on stage during one of his popular performances. She is about to wed the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) of Austria, a dangerous authoritarian-minded man. How do you stop an evil monarch from running away with your love, especially when with the competent Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) on your tail? As Eisenheim and Sophie try to rekindle their renewed love, events transpire into the intense and unexplainable. This is Neil Burger's remarkable film, The Illusionist (2006).

Originating from Steven Millhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist," The Illusionist is wonderfully imagined on screen through director Neil Burger. Few modern films are as effective in taking the viewer away into a story as The Illusionist; an elaborate and involved story of love, murder and magic with enjoyable, well-rounded characters at the center. The atmosphere is palpable with thick mystery, deep feeling and a visually gripping picture. Dick Pope's Oscar-nominated cinematography work is one of the most admirable aspects of the film with stunning lighting and rich coloring. Other fine special effects visuals are included in the film, most notably some intriguing illusions advised by magic experts James Freedman and Ricky Jay, as well as many impressive set decorations and beautiful locations (the film was shot in the Czech Republic, doubling for the film's Austrian setting).

Contemporary musical genius Philip Glass scores the film, and writes a fantastic piece of music. The score is melodious, soulful, stirring, mystical and so much more! Glass makes quite a wonderful contribution to the film with his work – and it really is a huge part of the film, enhancing the tone of the film to the fullest. Even without the accompaniment of the film, Glass's score is a brilliant piece of stand-alone music.

While everything that makes up this film is all top-notch, what really makes The Illusionist an excellent film are the great characters and accompanying performances. Edward Norton is a fantastic lead as the main character, Eisenheim the Illusionist – perhaps not the a career defining performance (such as Primal Fear (1996) or Fight Club (1999)) but one that I think is one of his bests. The Eisenheim character is not really overflowing with emotions and Norton portrays this passionate magician with an intense subtlety, creating a man more dark and reserved but always doing things that you do not expect without going crazy on screen.

Rufus Sewell gives a solid performance as the antagonistic, selfish, pretentious and flat-out spoiled brat Prince Leopold. As a leading member of an extremely privileged class, Leopold is used to getting everything he wants and walking all over everyone in his path. However, when this Illusionist comes along and begins to take everything away, he goes mad. Leopold is indeed a loud, angry character and, unlike Norton, Sewell does go crazy on screen to superb effect as the monstrous antagonist but also allows the audience to sympathize with the character to a degree.

Although not one of the interesting characters of the film, Jessica Biel manages a good performance here as Eisenheim's love Sophie. Biel is not exactly a celebrated acting talent - and for good reason - but she really surprises in The Illusionist, even performing an accent very well.

Paul Giamatti on the other hand gives the best performance of the film and one of his very best performances ever as Inspector Uhl. One of my very favorite actors working today, brilliant in just about everything he has appeared in, Giamatti is especially brilliant in this film as the torn Inspector. Giamatti emits so much magnetism in his performance, bringing Uhl to life in an extremely impressive way: altering his voice, his mannerisms; virtually transforming himself into a character so different than he is used to playing. The Inspector Uhl character is my personal favorite thing about The Illusionist. The entire film takes the viewer on a great journey through the difficult, the dangerous and the unexplainable. Who could be a better guide than Giamatti's Inspector Uhl?

One of the things that The Illusionist does that both excites and confuses viewers is not give a clear-cut listing of explanations for everything that occurs in the film - much is left open-ended to be based on audience speculation. Was what we just saw fantasy or reality? Was that real or only an illusion? The whole movie is supposed to rouse that feeling in the viewer and if you ask yourself those kinds of questions after the film is over, The Illusionist has done you justice. Besides that however, The Illusionist is simply a brilliant film with a story that will keep you guessing, a look that will keep you gazing, music that will move you and performances that will leave you spellbound.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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