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The Independent Critic

Edward Norton, Jr., Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti
Neil Burger
Neil Burger, Steven Millhauser
Rated PG-13
110 Mins.
Yari Film Group Releasing
 "The Illusionist" Review 
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Based upon the short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser, "The Illusionist" centers on the wizardry of Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a man whose illusions appear so complex and without explanation that he is either of master trickery or of being possessed with supernatural powers.

We meet Eisenheim as a young boy, the son of a cabinet maker, who stumbles upon a traveling magician one day in his village one day and becomes enthralled. He attracts the attention of a young Sophie, and though their love is forbidden as she is the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, they find ways to see each other until finally discovered and forbidden from ever seeing each other again.

The story picks up 15 years later, Eisenheim is now a renowned illusionist who has traveled the world before finally arriving in Vienna. Unbeknownst to him, Sophie (Jessica Biel) is in Vienna, as well, about to be wed to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a power hungry, ambitious and abusive man destined for the throne.

Where reality ends and illusion begins is much of the joy in watching "The Illusionist," a film written and directed by Neil Burger that is part forbidden love story, part murder mystery, part revenge tale and, yes, part tragicomedy.

As Inspector Uhl, Paul Giamatti has the unenviable task of attempting to make sense of this entire scene and playing, essentially, a game of connect-the-dots. Unfortunately for the ambitious yet sensible Inspector, the dots in question keep moving throughout the film.

There are, of course, certainties within the context of a film such as "The Illusionist." Eisenheim and Sophie will inevitably recognize each other, rekindle their passions and seek a way to escape. Likewise, the Crown Prince will undoubtedly seek to figure out Eisenheim's mystical ways and will, eventually, become aware of the relationship between Eisenheim and Sophie and will seek revenge.

These things are inevitable. How they are presented, however, is provocative and entertaining even while being a tad predictable. Will murder be avenged? Will the love of Sophie and Eisenheim be denied forever? Will Inspector Uhl connect-the-dots in time? Will the Crown Prince obtain the throne?

Much like the great illusionists, Burger's script and direction reveal just enough to keep things interesting without ever showing all the cards at one time. Even when things seem obvious, there's a little voice in the back of your head going "Oh, but it could also be this...or, wait...even that." Even as Inspector Uhl seems to be assembling the entire deck and justice is about to be served, the very definition of justice begins to change.

In the hands of the wrong cast, "The Illusionist" would be merely an arthouse flick with a limited audience OR a popcorn flick dumbed down enough to make it palatable. Fortunately, Burger has been blessed with the perfect cast to bring out the multi-faceted complexities of the film without taking away its fun and intrigue.

Edward Norton offers a finely tuned and quietly intense performance as Eisenheim. Norton's Eisenheim is both compassionate and controversial. He's also acutely aware that in every lie there is truth and, likewise, in every truth there is a lie. There are no absolutes, the very fact which makes illusions possible. Norton is, quite possibly, one of the few actors working today who can truly say he's never given a weak performance in a film. "The Illusionist" provides further proof of this actor's wide range, and an Independent Spirit nomination seems likely for this performance.

As Inspector Uhl, Paul Giamatti offers what is likely to be his second largely unheralded performance this year, after "Lady in the Water." Giamatti proves again that he is America's current greatest supporting actor with a surprisingly restrained performance that offers just the right mix of ambition and compassion. There are moments in "The Illusionist" where Giamatti communicates more with the flick of an eyebrow than most actors can do with an entire screenplay.

Despite the acting prowess and power of both Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, the undeniable surprise of "The Illusionist" lies in the beautifully subtle and spot-on brilliance of Jessica Biel. Previously known primarily as the hot chick in teen-aimed popcorn flicks, Biel provides proof positive of acting talent far beyond anything she's had the chance to reveal previously. Had her character not been a tad underwritten, it would likely be Biel instead of Norton or Giamatti that everyone would be talking about in this film.

In supporting roles, Rufus Sewell is delightfully wicked as the Crown Prince and Edward Marsan offers a solid performance as Eisenheim's manager.

Phillip Glass continues to prove himself one of America's greatest film composers, with a score that accentuates to perfection the film's action, mood and lighting. Cinematographer Dick Pope beautifully captures the film's Prague locale, and the film's lighting, especially during stage scenes, is stellar.

"The Illusionist" is likely to be a tough sell at the box-office, and will most likely find most of its success on the arthouse circuit despite the potential box-office draw of the film's three main box-office draws. While the film is opening wider than is usual for such an arthouse period piece, its true staying power will likely depend on positive word-of-mouth.

Behind strong performances from Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, along with the vision of writer/director Neil Burger, "The Illusionist" is a deceptively simple yet magical cinematic experience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic