“The Illusionist” (PG-13)
Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Directed by Neil Burger
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.
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.
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