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Illusionist’ fails to realize magic potential

Marty Schroeder | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Many films try to recreate the past and immerse the audience into some far distant time with kings, wars and chivalry. Few modern films, though, try to immerse us in a viewing experience as those viewers of the past would have had. “The Illusionist,” however, does exactly this. A tale about a magician who travels to Vienna at the turn of the 19th century, this flick is not so much about the past but about the past viewings of films.

Starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, “The Illusionist” weaves a plot around the peasant who becomes the famous Eisenheim the Illusionist (Norton). He falls in love with a Countess (Biel) who has caught the eye of the crown price of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rufus Sewell deftly plays Crown Prince Leopold whose unique voice brings an unmistakable menace to the character. The hubris that Sewell brings suits the character well and counters Norton’s Eisenheim in a way that is not complicated or subtle but works well for what the film is – an entertaining yarn about magic, love and little else.

The standout in “The Illusionist” is Paul Giamatti who never fails to impress. He plays the ambitious yet righteous Inspector Uhl. The plot revolves around his inspection of Eisenheim and the desire to learn how his secrets are performed. Giamatti’s Uhl is the only character with complication and thus is the most interesting. Eisenheim is the peasant angry at the aristocracy, Leopold is the aristocrat who wants people in their place and Biel is the Countess who wishes she could love who she wants but can’t – these are all basic stock characters. Only Uhl examines social mores and roles and questions what he is doing and yet still attempts to legitimize his doing it – this isn’t an Oscar caliber performance but it keeps the story interesting.

The DVD has a commentary by the writer and director Neil Burger that is interesting and insightful. The making of the film is also of note due to the highly detailed sets and costumes. This is where the film shines through the most because it seems the art department is one of the few that actually took their jobs seriously. Except for a certain sword that looks like something out of a cracker-jack box, the sumptuous costumes and varied sets are explored in this making of featurette that is sure to impress. Jessica Biel on “The Illusionist” is nothing too impressive. Her acting was sub-par, as was her interview on the film. It would have been far more interesting if they had interviewed veteran film actors Norton or Giamatti.

Overall, this film is entertaining and highly watchable. The ending has some predictable twists alongside some not so predictable twists that keep the plot interesting. This is not a film that deserves a blind-buy but instead should be watched before being purchased. Fans of magic, mystery and period pieces will enjoy it thoroughly. If, however, you aren’t into genres of that ilk, this may not be the film for you. It may have received more credit if it hadn’t been released right in line with the similar (and better) “The Prestige” but it still can hold its own. This is not Norton’s nor is it Giamatti’s best, but each performance is entertaining in its own way. Netflix or Blockbuster deserves your business for this one but perhaps not Best Buy – unless you’re a magic lover.