Saturday, September 23, 2006

Movie Review: "The Illusionist"

Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan
Directed by Neil Burger

Official Web site

Taking its cue from some of the early days of filmmaking, the look of “The Illusionist” is as much a character as the cast that inhabits its 19th century Vienna setting. It’s a period piece that centers around the magical, perhaps supernatural abilities of a man with the stage name of Eisenheim (Edward Norton). Arriving to town with little fanfare, he quickly captivates and amazes audiences with his superior slight of hand skills.

Among those he impresses is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is frequently in the service of the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, crafting a perfectly dastardly villain). Soon after, the prince and his fiancee Sophie (Jessica Biel) attend a performance that leads to the young woman being incorporated into Eisenheim’s show. But there’s more here than meets the eye, as the two have a history from their childhood. Their brief friendship and blossoming romance as children is captured in beautifully photographed flashbacks that incorporate old-fashioned storytelling fade-outs.

Writer-director Neil Burger chose to shoot the movie in a muted color palate, with sepia tone in the flashbacks that helps the movie look like more than a bunch of actors playing dress up – a problem that has plagued more than a few period pieces over the years. Speaking English in German accents could have been a practical invitation to ham it up, but luckily the actors largely avoid the temptation. They recognize there’s some good storytelling on display here, and choose to service the script, rather than upstage it.

While the pacing is a bit lax in certain stretches, the presence of the always interesting Norton and Giamatti proves to be the film’s greatest asset. Norton brings a quiet intensity to his role as the enigmatic illusionist, playfully sparring with Giamatti in several of their scenes together, while showing some romantic passion for the woman who has unexpectedly reentered his life. To her credit, Biel easily has her best role to date, and doesn’t disappoint.

Having usually stood out in films, even when he’s been superior to the material handed him, Giamatti offers a wonderful performance as the conflicted inspector. At the urging of the prince, who sees Eisenheim as a potential threat for the heart of his fiancee, Uhl is determined to expose the illusionist as a fraud – a task that seemingly becomes more difficult as time passes. Eisenheim accuses Uhl of basically being a puppet of the prince, with the promise of a high position in his regime dangled as a proverbial carrot for his loyalty. It’s a charge that Uhl knows he can’t deny, but refuses to let it deter him from his job – even when it leads him down a path he’d rather not travel.

Some of the story’s twists and turns, particularly in the third act, maybe take a few liberties with logic. But by then, “The Illusionist” has already cast its compelling spell over the audience. One would imagine Eisenheim wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grade: A-
(Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.)

What’s Next
Edward Norton - Set to co-star with Naomi Watts in “The Painted Veil,” based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Release scheduled to be limited in December and going wider in January 2007.

Paul Giamatti - Cast as a villain in an upcoming action pic, “Shoot ‘Em Up,” coming in 2007. The film will also star Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci.

Jessica Biel - Her next film will be this December’s “Home of the Brave,” as one of several soldiers struggling to adjust back to civilian life after an extended tour of duty in Iraq. Samuel L. Jackson and Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, co-star.

No comments: