The Illusionist (9/10)
by Tony Medley
like to see movies by smart people with plots that keep you thinking and
actors who can spin the web of belief. That’s what I got with “The
Illusionist.” Writer-Director Neil Burger got the idea from a short
story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Milhauser. But all that he
took from the story was the character. Burger wrote the script, the
original of which had a completely different ending from the one that
was finally shot.
Eisenheim (Edward Norton), an amazing performer of mystifying feats, but
a commoner in imperial Vienna, falls for a girl, Princess Sophie
(Jessica Biel), with whom he had an infatuation as a child. Problem is
Princess Sophie is Crown Prince Leopold’s (Rufus Sewell) squeeze.
Leopold wants to marry her so he can overthrow his old man, the Emperor,
and usurp the throne. As you might imagine, this causes all sorts of
problems and sets Leopold’s top cop, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti),
also a commoner, against Eisenheim. The fact that both Eisenheim and Uhl
are commoners is meaningful because Leopold is nothing if not a man who
flaunts his imperial roots.
entire cast is exceptional, but the most enjoyable is Sewell, who
creates a delightfully hateful Leopold. Norton, who is known to be a
perfectionist, gives an unerring interpretation of the illusionist he
plays. Giamatti gives another outstanding performance as the implacable
inspector who has to toe a fine line between representing an evil man
but at the same time keeping his exalted position. Jessica Biel plays
Sophie as a beautiful, heady, romantic interest and the person around
whom all the controversy swirls.
Biel was the last person cast, and at the last minute. She had read for
the part earlier and been rejected. “My reputation around Hollywood as
an action movie star hurt me,” she says. “But this is the kind of film I
want to do.” Then when she was asked to read again, with Producer
Michael London and Norton, she went to the Paris store on Main Street in
Santa Monica and bought vintage clothes appropriate for
turn-of-the-century Vienna (it was shot in Prague on a budget in the
“mid-teen millions” according to London) and went to the reading totally
in character. She says, “Going to the reading, which was in Beverly
Hills at 11:00 at night, I was terrified, dripping sweat, because I
didn’t know how they would react to the way I was dressed.”
when she walked in, says London, “she was so in character both Edward
and I were knocked over” and she got the part. It was a good choice
because she isn’t just beautiful; she adds a cerebral aspect to the
character, which would be needed to so captivate someone like Eisenheim.
Says Biel, “I’ve never worked with people of this caliber before”
(Norton and Giamatti are both Oscar winners), “and I was intimidated by
Edward. He is so smart and is incredibly intense to work with. He will
let you have it if you aren’t doing what he thinks is right. He’s
opinionated but really cares and you can’t criticize that.”
music (Phillip Glass), so often a key to a movie like this, is unusual.
Instead of period music, it is dissonant with a much more modern feel.
The cinematography (Dick Pope), too, is unusual. Burger didn’t want it
to be sophisticated; instead looking for the visual feel of early silent
films. So the look is dark. In fact, one of the final scenes is a
beautiful countryside setting that is so bright and vibrant that it
jolted me when it flashed on the screen.
in all, this is something that is becoming an endangered species in
Hollywood, a script- and character-driven movie that is highly
July 29, 2006