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The Illusionist (2006)
Rated PG13

Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and Paul Giamatti

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

The year is 1900 and a magician is enchanting Vienna. His name is Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and his tricks are like those of no other illusionist before him. His act attracts the attention of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewel), who attends a performance with his fiancee, Sophie (Jessica Biel). Leopold is skeptical of Eisenheim's talents and, when Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience, he offers Sophie to take part in the act. What Leopold doesn't know is that Sophie and Eisenheim have a romantic past. Leopold's act of skepticism reignites an affair that could threaten his reign.

The Illusionist is based on "Eisenheim the Illusionist," a short story by Steven Millhauser. Adapted by writer/director Neil Burger, the film version is a masterful combination of romance, suspense and fantasy. As the movie progressed toward its conclusion, I kept smiling to myself. I had no idea what to expect when I started watching The Illusionist and the movie's genre-blending kept me guessing until the end.

At the heart of the film's success are the performances by Norton, Biel, and Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl. Of the three, the biggest surprise is Jessica Biel, who I would never have expected to play a role like this at any point in her career. Giamatti's role is probably the most challenging because his character is allied with the prince but sympathetic to Eisenheim's plight and he balances this conflict quite well. Norton's character is purposefully enigmatic but it's to the actor's credit that one still cares what happens to Eisenheim despite his somewhat stolid persona.

Of course, being a film about a magician, there are several magic tricks in the movie. Using a well-balanced combination of CGI, mechanical effects, and real sleight-of-hand, the magic element of The Illusionist never approaches the unbelieveable. So, you're never sure which direction the story will head. Is the magic real? Does Eisenheim have supernatural powers?

The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Dick Pope is particularly interesting as the movie was shot in a sepia-toned manner similar to that of a silent film. Combined with the excellent costumes by Ngila Dickson, a superb score by Philip Glass, and some great locations, the film convincingly takes the viewer back to turn of the 20th century Europe.

Although it didn't make much of an impact at the box office, The Illusionist deserves to find an audience on home video. Despite being a movie about illusions and deception, the on-screen magic that The Illusionist creates is quite real.

Trivia: Edward Norton did many of his own magic tricks, with the coaching of James Freedman. He worked with Edward Norton preparing him for his stage performances and acted as a hand double in numerous situations. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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