Sometimes when short fiction or a novella serves as the basis for
a feature film, there really isn't enough "story" and the result feels
padded. I'm pleased to say that isn't the case with Neil Burger's
THE ILLUSIONIST, loosely adapted from a work by Pulitzer Prize
winner Steven Millhauser.

Set in fin de siècle Vienna,
THE ILLUSIONIST begins with a man
on a bare stage as he attempts to conjure the ghost of a deceased
woman. The police step in and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti)
is then seen recounting what happened to Crown Prince Leopold
(Rufus Sewell). Uhl sketches in the background of the arrested man,
who the audience learns is known as Eisenheim (Edward Norton),
although he was born Edward Abramowitz, the Jewish son of
a cabinetmaker. As a young boy (played in flashbacks by Aaron
Johnson), he falls in love with Sophie, the Duchess von Taschen
(Eleanor Tomlinson as young girl; Jessica Biel as the grown up).
When her family rips the budding lovers apart, young Abramowitz
is so distraught that he leaves the country and no one really knows
what happened to him. That is, until he shows up in Vienna one day
now billed as Eisenheim the Illusionist. He does some rather interesting
tricks (which were overseen by Ricky Jay and which were generally
period specific). Without resorting to an overuse of CGI, Burger
manages to enchant the viewing audience as much as the onscreen
audience at Eisenheim's show.

Hearing of this magical evening, the Crown Prince attends one
of the shows, along with his chosen girlfriend -- who happens to be
the grown-up Sophie. She is volunteered to assist the illusionist in         
an act and as soon as she hits the stage, he recognizes her as his
long-lost love. Eventually, the pair are drawn together despite
her unofficial betrothal to Leopold. Then, things go seemingly wrong.

I won't spoil the effect of this lovely film by revealing any more
of its twisty plot. I will say that
THE ILLUSIONIST is a very beautiful
movie to watch, with elegant costumes by Ngila Dickson, a sumptuous
production design by Ondrej Nekvasil, and gorgeous cinematography
by Dick Pope. The score by Philip Glass also adds immensely to one's
enjoyment of the film.

The performances, though, are a mixed bag. I have often had
trouble with Edward Norton as a lead actor. While he can sometimes
be a strong performer, there are other times when he seems to
be so lightweight as to disappear on screen. When I watch him,
I feel something is missing, a spark, some charisma, something.
In this film, he managed to hold my attention, but I didn't feel
that he gave an overly strong performance. Perhaps because he
was overshadowed by Rufus Sewell who pulled out all the stops
to portray Leopold. Sewell flirted dangerously close to the line of
hamminess yet didn't quite cross over. He made his villainous
character an intriguing one.

The two best peformances, though, come from Jessica Biel as
the adult Sophie and from Paul Giamatti as Uhl. Those who only
know Biel from her previous work in contemporary films or from
television will be surprised at how well she blends into a period
film, and how she manages to hold the screen opposite both Sewell
and Giamatti. The latter delivers one of his best portrayals as the
generally honest police man.

I will have to say that I did not enjoy the way Burger ended his
film. Instead of opting for one that retained some of the mystery of
a magic trick, he has to go and reveal the secrets of the illusion.
It's a flaw that almost derails an otherwise enjoyable film.

       Rating:                B+
       MPAA Rating:       PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
       Running time:      110 mins.
The Illusionist
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.