CinemaDave (cinemadave) wrote,

"The Illusionist" was a harbinger of good things to come...

At the Press screening of "Pan's Labyrinth," I ran
into my colleague Denise and we discussed that movies
had been getting better since last November. Denise
was more specific and pinpointed "The Illusionist"
as the harbinger of good things to come. Recently
released on DVD, "The Illusionist" has been
nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography
against rivals like "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Black
Dahlia," "Children of Men" and "The Prestige"
All of these films feature fantastic worlds in
contrast to everyday life. "The Illusionist" is good
old fashioned popcorn eating entertainment that mixes
mystery, romance with a dose of common sense magic.

Based on Steven Millhauser's short story “Esienheim
the Illusionist” and set in 19th century Vienna, "The
Illusionist" opens with inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti)
interrupting the Esienheim Magic Show. It is
believed that Esienheim (Edward Norton) can channel
the spirits of the dead. This upsets Crown Prince
Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who suffers from a guilty
conscience. The Crown Prince is to be the eventual
ruler of the Ottoman Empire.

The film flashbacks to Eisenheim's childhood. Legend
has it that Young Esienheim met a man at the
crossroads who taught the boy all of his magic tricks
at the base of a tree. After the man taught the boy
everything he knew, the man and the tree magically
disappeared. Developing skills as a carpenter,
Esienheim creates the premier magic show in the heart
of Vienna, a city harvesting the seeds of fascism.

Jessica Biel portrays Eisenheim's childhood friend and
fiancée to the insecure Crown Prince. She is a
charming creature who earns the devotion of her
childhood friend, much to the consternation of her
future husband. Rufus Sewell excels at this type of
authoritarian man who suffers from chinks in his

As Esienheim the Illusionist, Edward Norton does an
excellent job playing his magical cards close to his
vest, it is a tricky performance that does not make
mysterious character a boor. The perspective of the
story is told by Inspector Uhl. Adopting a Sebastian
Cabot voice, Paul Giamatti goes against his cinematic
stereotype and proves himself a worthy rival of
Esienheim in this costume drama. A bit of a stuffy
character, Giamatti reveals a childish admiration for
Eisenheim's magical tasks.

Given the cinematography honors, I regret not seeing
"The Illusionist" on the big screen.
There is something visually interesting in every shot
of the movie. The beauty of Director Neil Burger's
leisurely pacing is that the viewer is able to absorb
the cinematic details. Far from distracting from the
plot, these details provide important clues to the
plot's construction.

Without relying on magical tricks being performed by
Master Yoda or Gandalf the Grey, Esienheim the
Illusionist presents grand illusions shrouded in
pragmatic truth. The subtle humor of "The Illusionist"
relies on the clever, but common sense construction of
each trick. "The Illusionist" has nothing up it's
sleeve except good intentions.
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