Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Illusionist: a review

Quick summary of the story of the film The Illusionist. A magician, Eisenheim, in turn of the century Vienna falls in love with a woman. To win her, he must use all his skills to defeat her fiancée, a Crown Prince with violent, petty tendencies. Maybe not the kind of film you expect to pack them into the multiplexes. It has found something of an audience in the U.S. But based on the lack of crowd that watched this with me at AMC Lowes Raceway 2 weeks ago (counted the entire audience with both hands.), you wouldn't know it.

That being said, 3 feelings came to me after The Illusionist was over. One, this looked like a handcrafted film. Shot on location in Prague and elsewhere in the Czech Republic, director/screenwriter Neil Burger is aided by both wonderful locations and great work from his cinematographer Dick Pope and the art direction team.

Two, the performances never failed to keep one engaged. I enjoyed Paul Giamatti in Sideways and even in Lady in the Water, but I admired his range going way back to Broadway in a revival of The Iceman Cometh. As the Inspector investigating Eisenheim, Giamatti looks just as home in this era as in modern day. As the arrogant prince, Rufus Sewell works overtime to rise above the stereotypical fop, and mostly he succeeds. Any time he doesn't, I blame the need to fulfill the needs of the plot. Jessica Biel was a pleasant surprise as the love interest. Lord knows I'm not the only one to write something along those lines, and I can imagine that being infuriating for her if she's read or heard that regularly at this point. I'm sorry, but there was nothing in her work in either Seventh Heaven or Blade:Trinity to make me think otherwise.

But as much as I liked all those performances, Giamatti, Sewell and Biel all looked like they were working, next to Edward Norton as the lead. The three of them were trying to be their characters, Norton simply was. As I was watching him, he seemed to make it effortless.

Unfortunately, that leads to my third feeling. I never believed for a second that Norton's character was in danger. They made pains to settle up obstacles; the anti-Semitism in that era. The class structure, of which Eisenheim was at the bottom. The flashback method, of which I'd guess 4/5s of the film is comprised of doesn't help. With no credible threat, the film starts to become more of an exercise in style. There's another beef I have regarding how what the reaction to the death of someone Royal would be, but this involves possible spoilers, so I can get into it.

But then there's the end. I've never read the short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser, that the film The Illusionist, is based on. But here, let's just say that if you've seen The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, you now have a good idea how the ending will go here. It left me with feelings of been there/done that, as well as a little disappointment. Overall, I was entertained and I got a lot more out of this then say, Jackass 2 or The Guardian. But Norton and the look of the film aside, best to watch this with low expectations coming in.

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