2006-09-22 / Columnists


'The Illusionist' - Movie Magic
By Robert Snyder

The most surprising movie of the year is truly magical in every way.

Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, "The Illusionist" is a sure bet for Best Picture at Oscar-time. With sumptuous photography (Dick Pope) and elegant production design (Ondrej Nekvasil), the film boasts performances, writing, special effects, costumes and direction that are literally out of this world. And the world being perfectly depicted is Vienna of the late 19th century...Freud's Vienna. This may be one reason why writer/director Neil Burger makes "The Illusionist" hypnotically hover in and out of consciousness.

In the center of the mysterious story is an enigmatic magician named Eisenheim (the equally mysterious Edward Norton). As explained by the Chief Inspector of Police Uhl (Paul Giamatti), young Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) encounters a traveling magic maker, who introduces him to the strange art. The son of a carpenter, the boy magician catches the eye of a beautiful aristocrat, Sophie, with whom he forms a deep and loving bond.

However, this does not bode well for Sophie's parents. They forcibly break up the relationship. Years pass and Sophie grows up to become the statuesque, unhappy wife-to-be of the evil Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Meanwhile, Eisenheim has blossomed into a famous illusionist, staging spectacular shows and mystifying the masses in an almost Christ-like manner. In fact, one of his most renowned tricks is to raise the spirits of the dead. (Under the supervision of magic advisor Ricky Jay, the stunts are stunningly staged, allowing audiences both real and in the film to experience awe and wonderment.)

His notoriety attracts the attention of the Crown Prince, who attends a show and offers Sophie as a subject for a magical exhibition. Onstage, the two recognize each other, creating real magic...the love kind.

Determined to undermine the magician's mystery, the Crown Prince invites Eisenheim to the palace for a private demonstration. After humiliating Leopold with the Royal's own sword, the illusionist consummates his love for Sophie after she secretly meets him at his cottage. The situation builds to a confrontation between Leopold and his once intended, resulting in her apparent murder.

The film now takes on the aura of an historical drama as Eisenheim uses his wiles to overthrow the Crown Prince in revenge for Sophie's death. But, nothing is as it seems.

The film casts its spells on the audience with more magic, intrigue and an astonishing climax that is illusive, but no illusion.

Go see "The Illusionist." It's real movie magic.

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