August 24, 2006

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The Illusionist (R)
Edward Norton gets the title role in The Illusionist, a spooky little fairy tale about a magician who tries to outsmart a crown prince all for love of a girl.

If M. Night Shyamalan could dial back the giant eagles and the water nymphs and all the pretentious nonsense that has made most of his movies more insufferable than creepy, he might be able to make a couple of moody, eerie horror-mystery-suspense films like this. Like Shyamalan's films, The Illusionist has a nice aura of the mystical about it. Set in 1900-ish Austria, it offers a perfect blend of the modern (police investigators, light bulbs) and the ancient (royals, spirits) worlds. We even start to buy into the idea that Norton's Eisenheim the Illusionist might actually be able to perform magic. Unlike Shyamalan's version of story-telling, the movie isn't built on any kind of a hokey yank-the-rug-out-from-under-us twist ending. It's more about the basic showmanship of magic — that the trick is right there in front of you but you're too distracted by the rabbit coming out of the hat to notice the doves being slid up the performer's sleeves.

And if anyone might be able to actually conjure the dark arts, it'd be Eisenheim, who has a vaguely Rasputin quality to him and who calmly and almost wordlessly performs his feats — an orange tree appears to grow before the audience's eye from an orange seed and a woman appears to have her reflection killed by another version of herself, with a ghost that rises from her slain body, all while she watches in a mirror. That last trick is a nifty one that Eisenheim performs in front of an audience including Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) on his majesty's fiance Sophie (Jessica Biel). After the ghost appears to vanish, Sophie faints — but it is because she has just seen her soul or because she has just realized that Eisenheim is the same boy with whom she was childhood sweethearts? She, a noblewoman, was taken away and he, a commoner, skipped town and traveled the world.

Now a famous magician, Eisenheim is still at the mercy of Leopold, who has a security force following Sophie and who could easily be crushed by a displeased future head of state. Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a fan of Eisenheim's, tries to warn the magician away from Sophie but Eisenheim continues a wooing of her that includes briefly humiliating the prince during a command performance magic show. Sophie eventually calls it off with Leopold, a breakup he takes extremely poorly. When the sun rises, Uhl finds a woman's body and a pissed-off magician spouting treasonous accusations on his hands.

You start with good actors, you get good performances — so it's no surprise that Sewell, Giamatti and Norton are fun to watch as they cat-and-mouse each other. Even Biel, whose biggest credit is still Seventh Heaven, doesn't get in the way of the real performances and even turns in a tidy little effort of her own.

What truly pulls this soapy bodice-ripper together is the film's score, composed by Philip Glass. His other credits include the spare but thoroughly haunting score for the documentary The Fog of War and a new score for Kronos Quartet to play over the 1931 Dracula. In The Illusionist, the same musical elements that accompanied the journey to castle Dracula — a sad, lovely yet thrillingly spooky sound that throws a little chill up your spine — give us a Vienna that seems as ominous as the Transylvanian hinterlands. Nifty visual effects give us the same dark edges around the frame of some scenes that you'd see in the early black-and-whites.

The overall effect is a movie that seems romantic but full of mischievousness, haunted but not so fantastic as to lose the hard realist. The Illusionist draws you in and holds your attention, as though you were hearing a story told by candlelight, giving more drama, nuance and texture than you might expect to what is essentially a love story. B+

— Amy Diaz


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