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THE ILLUSIONIST (***Ĺ)
Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed & Written by: Neil Burger
Starring:
Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
Running time: 109 minutes, Released: 08/18/06.
Rated PG-13
for some sexuality and violence
"Magic and movies donít often mix well, however writer/director Neil Burger and his stellar cast deftly pull off some impressive parlor tricks in The Illusionist. A crisp, intelligent, dynamic confection, The Illusionist is the right blend of romance and mystery, and a true piece of movie magic. Based on the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti is one of just a handful of real must-see films of 2006.

Set in the turn of the 20th century, Eisenheim - a poor young boy who loves magic - falls in love with Sophie, a beautiful girl from a class far above his own. Pulled apart by her parents, itís not until years later when the magician has become a renowned illusionist that the two come face to face again.

Astonishing audiences in Vienna and playing to sell-out crowds, Eisenheimís reputation brings him to the attention of Crown Prince Leopold, a dastardly type who is jealous of anyone elseís fame. Leopold attends a performance of Eisenheimís and when the illusionist requests an assistant from the audience for a particularly difficult trick, the Crown Prince volunteers his fiancťe Sophie. Once on stage, Eisenheim and Sophie immediately recognize one another from their childhood days. Itís immediately obvious the connection they shared as children hasnít faded.

Eisenheimís very presence seems to offend the Crown Prince and not one to be trifled with, the power-crazed Count sics his lapdog, Chief Inspector Uhl, on the magician in an effort to destroy Eisenheimís career and reputation. Charging the illusionist with making threats against the empire, Leopold does everything in his considerable power to ruin Eisenheim and keep his own prized possession Ė Sophie Ė from finding happiness with her first love.

The Illusionist is an intense battle of wills between the despicable Prince Leopold and the cunning Eisenheim, with officer Uhl - an amateur magician himself and someone fascinated with Eisenheimís work - stuck in the middle. Is Eisenheim calling on supernatural powers when he makes butterflies appear out of thin air, plants grow to full height in the space of mere minutes, or performs other extraordinary tricks onstage, or is it all smoke and mirrors? Uhl seeks answers to the source of Eisenheimís powers while delicately balancing his admiration for the magician with his duty to the Crown Prince.

Edward Norton turns in another intense performance as a master illusionist unwillingly caught up in the world of politics and murder. Norton infuses the role of Eisenheim with a calm reserve for the most part, yet is able to unleash a playfulness when itís called for Ė specifically in the scenes when heís showing off his magical talents on stage, and in later scenes with Jessica Biel as the adult Sophie. Nortonís so convincing as a stage magician that even while we know weíre being tricked, we donít mind at all the fact heís manipulating us.

Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl and Rufus Sewell as the villainous Crown Prince are both excellent in their supporting roles. But truly the surprising performance in the film comes from Jessica Biel as Sophie. Known for her roles in 7th Heaven and action movies (Blade: Trinity, Stealth), this is Bielís first shot at playing a character of this ilk and she absolutely nails it. Bielís character Sophie needs to come across as a strong, intelligent woman and thatís exactly how Biel plays her.

An intriguing fairy tale for adults, The Illusionist is a rare treat. Visually stunning, the use of muted colors (mostly browns) gives The Illusionist the aura of a silent film, effectively capturing the time period of the story. The cinematography, costumes, and overall tone of the film help modern audiences forget itís 2006. The film does an amazing job of transporting its viewers back in time to 1900 Vienna. The fact itís not important how the actual magic shown on the screen is accomplished speaks volumes to the superb character development in the movie and the engrossing story which unfolds onscreen.

The Illusionist is not your typical period drama, a breath-taking breakthrough into the suspense-mystery genre that owes as much to Arthur Conan Doyle as it does to M. Night Shyamalan, molding the two of them into an engaging spectacle that's as marvelous as it is unique.

THE ILLUSIONIST © 2006 Yari Film Group
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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