U.S. Release Date: August 18, 2006
Distributor: Yari Film Group
Director: Neil Burger
Writer: Neil Burger
Producer: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Michael London, Cathy Schulman, Bob Yari
Composer: Philip Glass
Cast: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, Aaron Johnson
Running Time: 1 hour and 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some sexuality and violence)

Edward Norton’s Merlin is Magnificent
by Scott Holleran

Buy the popcorn, sit back and enjoy the Yari Film Group's lyrical mystery, The Illusionist. This well-crafted story, presented in mesmerizing pictures and elevated by Edward Norton's mastermind act, is the best picture in eight months of middling movies.

Romantic intrigue provides the motive power for this intelligent puzzler, which rewards those who think. Following the clues is an enjoyable exercise, though one tends to get lost in The Illusionist's Viennese beauty, enhanced by a melodic Philip Glass score. Editing and photography afford a soft-focus, genuinely elegant sense of motion and style, with graceful transitions. The whole reel flickers like a silent movie.

With smart, economical words and inviting music, The Illusionist sounds as rich as it looks, and, while much has been made of its visual appeal, credit goes to writer and director Neil Burger for his meticulous selectivity. The sumptuousness benefits from an uninterrupted story progression, the soul of which lies in the eyes, Burger's delicate tool of choice for eliciting one's emotional response.

Things begin with a European village, a strange road traveler, and a bright, peasant boy who is teased for being different and couldn't possibly care less. Friendship sprouts between the boy—a craftsman's son who dabbles in magic—and a confident, aristocratic girl who is drawn to his impervious manner. He performs tricks for her and, later, he bestows an inventive, intimate gift. Gazing into one another's fresh faces, they form an impenetrable bond. The world is their domain.

In one violent night, it suddenly ends when she is swept away by the forces of traditionalism. Many years pass before they meet again. She has become a simple yet beautiful duchess (Jessica Biel) who is pursued by a dark royal prince (Rufus Sewell) while the peasant youth has transformed himself into Eisenheim, a gentle magician with a serious manner and an hypnotic presence.

Stepping onto Vienna's finest stages, he pauses, gestures and intones with precision. Regaling audiences with fresh oranges, fluttering birds and exotic butterflies—the picture's leitmotif—Mr. Norton's spellbinding Eisenheim is at once sensual and strong.

He is also contemptuous of monarchy, which he easily mocks, and, for this reason, the prince distrusts the popular performer, ordering the police commissioner (Paul Giamatti) to shut Eisenheim down. However, he gains in stature—and rakes in the money, humorously pleasing his loyal manager—and his work acquires an air of omnipotence. Everyone, including Giamatti's intrepid detective, finds his increasingly startling show impossible to explain.

Major developments are best left unsaid but they stem from the intersection of the sadistic prince's lust for power and the notion that Eisenheim has tapped into some sort of portal to the afterlife. As words, music and pictures merge in one grand finale of murder, rebellion and rebirth, The Illusionist arcs upward toward something like an exalted fantasy.

Sewell and Giamatti excel in key roles, Aaron Johnson and Eleanor Tomlinson are superb as the young lovers and Biel is fine as the duchess, though she cannot match Mr. Norton's superior technique. He is one of Hollywood's greatest actors and his Eisenheim is an outstanding career achievement.

Picking apart the mechanics spoils the imaginative pleasures, so accept The Illusionist as an invitation-only engagement for the active mind. It exists as a mystery with beauty, passion and purpose—a simple, spectacular display of the idea that nothing is what it seems.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Listening to writer and director Neil Burger's audio commentary on The Illusionist's DVD is not quite as mesmerizing as the movie, though he does reveal most of Eisenheim's tricks, both in cinematic and historic terms. His stories are interesting, especially for magic fans.

Burger discusses how this movie grew out of another movie's screening attended by magician David Blaine and Burger takes credit for inventing the sword trick. One of the picture's magic consultants, magician Ricky Jay, is credited here and elsewhere on the disc for his scholarly knowledge. Burger is purposeful, though he comes up short on explaining plot structure, defaulting to his interest in the mechanics of magic.

One can hope for a better edition in the future, as this version almost criminally inserts two useless mini-features, The Making of The Illusionist, a four-minute spurt whose title is a lie, and a puff piece with Jessica Biel that's nearly a word-for-word repeat of the other bit. Burger and The Illusionist deserve better.

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