Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Illusionist

The verdict: A visual treat, well-acted and beautifully scored. Quality film-making and a great yarn.

The rating: 7/10

As is often the case with the Hollywood production engine, two movies are often released in close proximity to each other, despite treating similar themes, even the same subject matter. For every 'Troy' there's an 'Alexander'. For every 'Capote', there's an 'Infamous'. For 'The Prestige' (coming soon to PCMR), it seems there is also Neil Burger's 'The Illusionist.' (At least there was only one bloody 'Titanic' - Ed)

Burger's screenplay for 'The Illusionist' is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, and Burger also directs. The setting is Vienna at the turn of the century where Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is working on behalf of the dastardly crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to keep a watchful eye on the movements of Sophie (Jessica Biel), the woman who may one day be princess - for her own protection of course. Uhl is also given the responsibility of investigating Eisenheim (Ed Norton), a mysteriously talented magician perceived by the prince as a threat to his own authority. As it transpires, Eisenheim had a childhood relationship with Sophie, and their connection only drives the determination of Leopold to have Eisenheim arrested.

Oh, but the plot thickens folks, and while the yarn is being spun, the technicians behind the cameras contrive to create an immersive atmosphere with this movie. Philip Glass' orchestral soundtrack is subtle and haunting, and Dick Pope's Oscar-nominated cinematography, more traditionally at home in the stark English suburbs of Mike Leigh, illuminates the mysterious theatre stages of Vienna in a feast for the eyes. For most of the movie, the audience is placed in the theatre with Eisenheim's performance, illuminated by flickering candle-light and ready to be entertained.

The lead performances are quite strong, although the period drama accents are a little difficult to place, but this is never grating, as can be the case with many Hollywood period pieces - for an example of this, see 'Troy' above or, rather, don't. (Where is that pseudo-British accent supposed to be from anyway!? - Ed).

With the exception of the quite excellent '25th Hour', Norton may have been accused of phoning it in for some of his recent cinematic outings ('The Italian Job', anyone?). Considering the capabilities he demonstrated with 'American History X' and 'Fight Club', poor old Ed could make a fair claim to the question of 'where was I supposed to go from there?'. He has wisely moved on from the angry characters, however, and his performance in the Illusionist is nicely understated and suits the tone of the movie and character very well. Giamatti too, is reserved, but quietly effective, and Rufus Sewell does a nice job as the dastardly crown prince, despite bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jude Law, except with the addition of decent acting. (Zing! - Ed). Biel is also quite good as the woman who may be betrothed to Leopold, but who really loves the mysterious Eisenheim...

The real star of the movie is the story though. Like an old-fashioned mystery yarn, it unravels slowly and delicately, but unlike an old-fashioned stage magician, it actually reveals some of its secrets towards the end. The movie is beautifully crafted though, and were it not for the fact that the excellent 'Pan's Labyrinth' won the Cinematography Oscar over 'The Illusionist' this year, PCMR might be mildly peeved at the injustice of it all.

So, PCMR would recommend 'The Illusionist' as a solid night at the movies, being the type of well-told tale that should hold a wide appeal. It might be a little heavy on technical craft, but it's still a good story with enough smoke, mirrors and more importantly, plot to hold the interest of the audience right till the ending.

So, what odds now for Jerry Bruckheimer producing 'Paul Daniels: the movie' in 2008? (Now that would be magic. Giamatti to play Paul Daniels, Helen Mirren for Debbie Magee!? - Ed)


Anonymous said...

Thought this was a great movie. Grabbed your attention from the first scene.
Not in the same league as the usual suspects but felt the same sense of 'unfolding' in the final scenes where it all falls into place.
Huge Norton fan, of the edward variety as opposed to the Graham!! Wasnt too impressed with the accent, but agree with your point that it never distracts from the story.
Definitely worth a look!
Great Blog btw - keep up the good work.

Tony Tanti said...

Good review, I liked this movie more than I expected to. Here`s my review:

I like your site, it`s a hobby of mine too. I`d be willing to link exchange if you`re interested.

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