Sunday, September 3, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Illusionist

How does he do it? It's magic!

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Brief Violence, Brief Sex

The Illusionist combines elements of costume drama, mystery and police procedural into a period piece embracing period beauty while dispensing with period stuffiness. Don't be afraid of the early 1900's Austrian setting or the British accents (why not German accents?). Let the strength of Edward Norton's performance draw you in as he plays Eisenheim, a magician with a growing reputation for mind-boggling tricks.

The film opens with Eisenheim's arrest as he conjures a ghost during a performance in a packed old theater with flaming footlights. The photography and use of silence in this scene sets the tone for the entire picture: creepy but not creeped out. Norton's character is a bit creepy himself, but a mannered creepy. The rest of the picture is told mostly from the point of view of police inspector Uhl (Giamatti) as he tries to solve two mysteries -- one of which is the secrets behind Eisenheim's tricks -- motivated by loyalty to the Crown Prince.

The magician wows audiences, but his number one fan is Sophie (Biel), an aristocrat he loved as a boy but could not marry because of his working-class status. Forced apart, Eisenheim refines his magic until they meet again by chance during a performance. As if tapped by a wand, the romance rekindles in them. But Sophie's now the fiancee of Crown Prince Leopold of Vienna, a man who wants to fast-track his ascent to the throne. He has a reputation for less than regal behavior. Sophie wants nothing to do with this empty, status-arranged relationship, but Eisenheim will have an easier time disappearing the Vienna Opera House than getting his love away from His Royal Highness.

The Illusionist plays out like a classic fairy tale, with its themes of forbidden love and mystical danger. Eisenheim may be a wizard or just a a tremendously talented showman, but we're not sure until the end.

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