(U-WIRE) STANFORD, Calif. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is for amateurs. Try sprouting a fully grown orange tree in a flower pot in 30 seconds or summoning dead spirits from beyond and maybe, just maybe, you could rank yourself among the greatest stage magicians in the world. Perhaps someday, with practice and dedication, you’ll be able to compete with the magnificent Eisenheim, “The Illusionist.”
From the crowded balconies in the ornate theaters of turn of the 20th century Vienna, an enraptured audience gawks in amazement as Eisenheim (Edward Norton) conjures up unbelievable illusions, with absolute disregard to the laws of nature. His powers to produce astounding magic tricks eventually snag the attention of Crowned Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Invited to perform at the prince’s palace, Eisenheim proceeds to offend the prince and a story filled with political intrigue, long-lost love and, above all, magic unfolds from there.
“The Illusionist” finds it strength from the fact that, like Eisenheim’s performances, everything is a show. The most gripping parts of the film are in those supernatural moments just before Eisenheim raises his hands to summon some seemingly impossible trick. The audience on screen almost melts into the audience in the theater as they watch with bated breath the magician’s performance. In those moments, when only Eisenheim, a chair and the lights on the stage illuminate the scene, the viewer becomes so absorbed in the movie that he quite literally becomes an extension of the audience in the theater in Vienna.
Though the main draw of the film is watching a master magician doing his tricks, perhaps the most surprising aspect of “The Illusionist” is that the story draws the viewer into the film as much as the magic tricks. Though a tad languid in it’s pacing after the end of the first act, “The Illusionist” does not lose the focus on the love between Eisenheim and Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel), though it does take some slight detours to set up the “Usual Suspects”-like twist ending. Even when it seems that the film has strayed from its focal point, when the applause of Eisenheim’s final illusion dies down, it becomes clear that every note played along the way, with all of the characters, comes together to create a satisfying show.
The relationships between the characters all serve their purpose as well. Strong yet subtle performances from Norton, Biel and Paul Giamatti as the awestruck yet dutiful Chief Inspector Uhl add both star quality and a level of credibility to world of “The Illusionist.” Though Viennese accents are as unreliable as card tricks, shortcomings in line delivery are easily overlooked as even least important characters deliver believable performances.
Norton’s Eisenheim is stoic, yet struts with that mix of arrogance and mystery that defines a great stage magician. Giamatti, coming off a bad turn in M. Night Shymalan’s “Lady in the Water,” redeems himself as an inspector who is two parts business and one part shocked audience member. However, most surprising is Biel’s portrayal of the socialite Sophie, as she is not an actress renowned for her complex depiction of characters. She manages to pull of a beautiful, refined yet empathetic aristocrat without recalling any of her past mediocrity from her time on “Seventh Heaven.”
In addition to the fine acting, one of the most immediately striking aspects of “The Illusionist” is the cinematography. Everything from a manhunt through some Tim Burton-esque woods to the ancient Viennese streets shine in a weathered sepia tone that ages the film to the time period it depicts. The magic tricks unfurl in front of a flattened backdrop but through certain camera tricks or perhaps tricks of the eye there is a depth to the magic that makes it all the more surreal. Even the love-making scene is done in such a blurred close-up that everything is abstracted, not just forcing the viewer to guess what the shapes are but distorting reality to the point where only the passion behind the act is important. The visual appeal of the film is undeniable.
Finally, the real beauty of the film lies in the ambiguity of the ending. Without revealing too much, you are left with the same questions with which you entered the theater. Is Eisenheim truly a sorcerer or is he just a cheap illusionist? Is it all smoke and mirrors or are the things he does truly paranormal? It’s up for you to decide just know that “The Illusionist” is no sideshow magician. It manages to pull much more than a rabbit out of its hat.