Washington City Paper | August 18, 2006
The Illusionist is the kind of film M. Night Shyamalan wishes he could still make. Written and directed by Neil Burger (based on a short story by Steven Millhauser), the movie is a period piece that incorporates the supernatural, romance, murder, and tyrannical authority into a refreshingly original plot—and may make ticketholders believe that screenwriters can still keep us guessing up until a satisfying end.

Edward Norton, intense as ever, stars as Eisenheim, an increasingly popular magician in 1900 Vienna. In front of rapt audiences, he conjures tiny orange trees from seeds and makes a woman’s handkerchief disappear from the box she’s holding and reappear by his side. A chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) is initially a fan, but he’s soon ordered by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to figure out Eisenheim’s secrets, from inspecting the theater in which he performs to asking the magician directly to reveal the workings of a minor trick. When Leopold attends a show in which his betrothed, Sophie (Jessica Biel), volunteers to participate in a creepy trick that plays on the notion of the soul—and in which he ends up being fooled onstage—Leopold demands that the inspector step up his efforts lest Eisenheim be viewed as more powerful than the prince himself. After it’s revealed that Sophie and Eisenheim were childhood friends who lost touch but are clearly still drawn to each other, the royal “who likes to give his lady friends a good thrashing now and again” unsurprisingly goes batshit.

The Illusionist could have easily gone ponderous. Nobody ever seems to smile, there’s not a lick of humor in the script, and, well, this is a period piece. But even Biel, whose main job is to look lovely, can’t spoil an interpretation this engrossing. Norton and Sewell make their characters worthy and sometimes rather frightening adversaries, lending them, respectively, quietly smug confidence and increasingly uncontrollable rage. Giamatti may not, for once, be Oscar-worthy here, but speaking in gravelly whispers, his inspector is nearly as absorbing as the apparent sorcerer.

Composer Philip Glass, who added another layer of infuriating pretension to 2004’s Yes, redeems himself by keeping the score low-key and appropriately spooky as the magic man raises his game by seemingly resurrecting the dead. Touches in Eisenheim’s act, such as the sudden appearance of tiny butterflies and silvery, slithery clouds of “souls” add a delicate beauty to the progressively darkening story. And cinematographer Dick Pope wraps it all in a gorgeous package, bathing nearly each location as well as the cast in ethereal gold. In the film, a newspaper review of an Eisenheim performance asserts that the magician’s talent has developed beyond trickery and is approaching art. From start to finish, it’s a place The Illusionist has unequivocally reached.

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