Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Illusionist (2006)

Director: Neil Burger                                         Writer: Neil Burger
Film Score: Philip Glass                                   Cinematography: Dick Pope
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti

The first film I ever saw Edward Norton in was The Italian Job . . . and I hated him. Not his performance, I hated the character, which I was supposed to. The only problem was it worked too well and I didn’t want to watch him in another movie at all . . . because I hated him. I wasn’t a big fan of Rufus Sewell, either. Jessica Biel, on the other hand, is a goddess, but the only thing I really knew her from was the lame television show Seventh Heaven. What actually brought me kicking and screaming to this film was Paul Giamatti, whom I had absolutely fallen in love with in Sideways and was equally impressed with in John Adams. I’m glad, though, because The Illusionist is a terrific film with a lot of fascinating aspects to it. If there’s a downside it is that it is told in the form of a fairy tale, which is no doubt due to the source material, a short story by Steven Millhauser called “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” Though set in Austria, the film was shot primarily in Czech Republic, including the studio sequences which were shot at the Barrandov Studios in Prague. Production design by Czech Ondrej Nekvasil is very good, especially the theater scenes and the rooms in the palace. But it was the cinematography by Dick Pope that earned the film its only Academy Award nomination.

The film begins in a small theater in Vienna, with Edward Norton sitting alone onstage. As something begins to form to his right, a woman in the audience claims to see something and Paul Giamatti as the chief inspector arrests him. Later Giamatti goes to see Rufus Sewell, the crown prince, and gives his report with the bulk of the film being told in flashback. He begins with the history of Norton, played by Aaron Johnson, and his fascination with magic. The boy also meets Eleanor Thomlinson, the young duchess who will grow up to become Jessica Biel, and they form a bond. Over the next few years the two fall in love, but are separated because he is a peasant. So he leaves to travel the world, and begins performing his act in public, showing up in Vienna fifteen years later as Edward Norton. His act is fairly straightforward for a magician of his day, and helped along by computer graphics. Sewell attends the next performance and the crown prince tells Biel to go up as Norton’s assistant. Norton recognizes her instantly, but it takes her until after the show. At a command performance at the palace, he subtly humiliates Sewell and then when Biel comes to see Norton the two of them physically consummate their love.

The key to the film is when he asks her, by the firelight, if she really wants to go away with him. She says that Sewell’s men will hunt them down wherever they go. And the rest of the film is quite magical indeed, especially with Giamatti playing a nineteenth-century version of Columbo. Edward Norton does a very credible job as the title character. Though his accent is a bit sketchy, his dark brooding manner is just right for the part. Rufus Sewell is also good as the angry, abusive prince, but it’s Paul Giamatti who commands the screen, and even he is not without his deficiencies as the chief inspector. Within the confines of the fairy-tale story, however, it all comes together. Jessica Biel is probably the weakest of the leads, and her role could have been played by any competent actress. Character actor Eddie Marsan puts in a nice turn as Norton’s manager, and would be wonderfully cast a few years later as Inspector Lestrade in the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films. The illusions are great, especially the first time viewing, and it has a very satisfying conclusion. Also, the film score by Philip Glass is very good at evoking the late nineteenth century and the CD has become an out of print rarity. The Illusionist, while not being a great film, certainly has a lot to recommend it, and for fans of any of the principals it is a must see.

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