Movies at their core are illustrated illusions, celluloid chimeras, and digital deceptions. We go to the theaters to watch what we already know is not real; even if it is "based on a true story or actual events," we know that someone else is in control of both the vertical and horizontal. People happily pay good money to be lied to, which is about the only time that people will do so without filing a complaint with the local BBB or news channel consumer action reporter.
So, keeping this in mind, I will look at The Illusionist, a film that proves to be quite enjoyable; although it doesn't look like much at the beginning, it slowly turns into an enchanting and magical film. With solid performances from the entire cast, this tale encases a story of forbidden love and one man's attempt to reclaim it.
In turn-of-the century Vienna, an extraordinary magician, known only as Eisenheim (Edward Norton), has enraptured the city with his wondrous talent at sleight of hand. Eisenheim is no stranger to the town, as he spent his formative years there but hastily quit the city when his forbidden love with the aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel) was discovered by the girl's mother, who did not want her to consort with someone below her station. Eisenheim, not of blue blood, loses the one thing in life that he treasures most, and with nothing left to tie him to Vienna, he treks the globe and learns the art of legerdemain.
His feats draw the attention of everyone, particularly Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, looking a lot like Freddy Mercury), who sees Eisenheim as a threat to his power and his betrothed, Sophie. It is clear that she doesn't love the soon-to-be sovereign and was most likely coerced into the engagement by her domineering mother. Leopold -- cold, calculating, and callous, has designs to depose his father, Emperor Franz Josef, and gain control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The prince has plans to expose Eisenheim as a fraud and discover his past ties to Vienna and Sophie. Leopold dispatches his private police to scrutinize the magician as well as tail Sophie for her own 'protection'. One night, during a performance, Sophie and Eisenheim recognize each other and begin to meet in secret, but their rendezvous do not escape the watchful eye of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giammati), who reports his finding back to Leopold. Loyal to his lord, Uhl tracks the magician like a hawk, waiting for any reason to shut down Eisenheim's stage act and plan to be with Sophie.
The Illusionist casts a spell of its own by drawing the viewer into the story by compelling the audience's concentration and taking advantage of a willing suspension of disbelief. The intermittently melodramatic film is a con game whose mark is human behavior and reaction -- a combination of smoke and mirrors that masks the true intentions and emotions of each player. It is the prince and the pauper parable done David Copperfield style; a Houdinian Romeo and Juliet housed in a Machiavellian framework constructed by director Neil Burger. This is all set to a beguiling score by Phillip Glass that adds a melodic component to the enigmatic plot.
The standout here, as far as acting goes, is Norton. His most powerful assets here are his entrancing eyes which penetrate the soul. With his lean frame and goatee beard enveloping his jaw-line, Norton portrays the brooding but fascinating magician with ease and fluency. The viewer is constantly wondering what is up his sleeve agenda-wise, in addition to his magic tricks.
Rufus Sewell plays his usual role of the villainous antagonist in high dudgeon with his normal and effortless flair. His realistic expression of his ambitious character's frustration at the lack of power and authority curtailed by his father, adds to the depth of his on-screen persona. Sewell is utterly despicable from the instant he makes his first appearance.
Redeeming himself nicely from that vile cataclysm that was Lady In The Water, is Giamatti. Although a bit out of his usual roles, Giamatti, who one would initially perceive as a nefarious enforcer, ultimately develops Uhl from a sycophant jockeying for a higher post to a more humanistic entity.
Jessica Biel holds her own nicely as the headstrong Sophie who is reluctantly engaged to the spiteful pretender to the throne. Bringing more than her beauty and charm to her part, Biel takes a firm grasp of her role, relaying the grace under the enormous pressure to which Sophie is subjected. She projects that Sophie is not a demure little princess, but a woman who has a strong will, mind, and fortitude of her own.
Although the ensemble of actors was a great combination, with a sturdy rapport between the three male characters, the chemistry between Biel and Norton just wasn't there. I felt no spark between them, and their coupling just seemed flat.
The Illusionist is far from your typical period piece and story about long lost lovers. It is a crafty work, based on on a short story by Steven Millhauser, that director Neil Burger keeps you hooked by not revealing Eisenheim's methods until the final scene of the film. You never know where the story will lead and where it will end up, but rest assured, it will take you somewhere you won't expect.
Czarina's First Date Rating: I rate this movie B; which means if I saw it on a first date I would*:
* Czarina does not give blow jobs on the first date... (often).
Czarina's Captious Compliment of Caustic Comment: The Illusionist is a movie with mojo.
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