' Cinema Romantico: The Illusionist

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Illusionist

Never has there been a better title for the film. "The Illusionist" makes you think - or maybe makes you hope - it's headed in one direction before making a severe about-face and then going another. Is this a good thing? Well.........

The story of the film concerns Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) returning to his home of Vienna to entertain the masses and annoy the ruthless Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Completing the obligatory love triangle is Sophie (Jessica Biel) who was the youthful love interest of Eisenheim but now the possible Princess to Sewell's Prince. Meanwhile Vienna's Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) at first seems determined that Eisenheim is a fake and then something worse. At the urging of the Prince he is out to prove the Illusionist as being fraudulent.

Early on the film seems to be after the bigger game. Eisenheim is able to control the population better than the Prince through the use of what may or may not be more than mere magic. "Do you claim supernatural powers?" Eisenheim is asked at one point. And it certainly seems that Eisenehim may very well be able to claim just that.

But then something else occurs midway through and at this point I became quite concerned the movie wasn't headed in some unique direction but into the corner these types of movies often paint themselves. I mean, it couldn't be The Illusionist's greatest illusion could owe so much to Agatha Christie. Could it? It couldn't. Or maybe it could.

What saves the film is the two outstanding lead performances from Norton and Giamatti. As the title character Norton almost seems capable of burning a hole through cement with his gaze. He plays it in just the right way, never tipping his hand as to whether he is a mere magician or more than that. And Giamatti one-up's Norton. He takes the role of the dogged inspector which we've seen many times before and makes it fresh. He displays both distrust and admiration for The Illusionist, which is not easy to do. The smile he gets at a particular moment when he has figured what is going is on is priceless.

The two actors along with the set decoration and the cinematography gussy things up but for what point and purpose? A magician can light his stage just so, and add any amount of fancy set dressing, and round up a dazzlingly gorgeous assistant, but if his closing trick is nothing more than the tired "saw the lady in half", well, I just don't see the point or purpose.

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