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Movie Review: The Illusionist

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Movie Review: The Illusionist
Is magic real or fake? This question lies at the heart of the historical melodrama, “The Illusionist.” While the film is generally entertaining and offers fun twists and turns, it falls a bit flat. And most of the period magic depicted here is impossible, courtesy of modern-day digital effects and video editing, which is a disappointment.

Period Magic

Set in turn of the century Vienna, Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim, a magician who commands the stage and falls in love with Jessica Biel’s Sophie, a countess who is well above Eisenheim’s social status and engaged to Rufus Sewell’s Prince Leopole. Ego and jealosy cause the Prince to rely on Paul Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Uhl to try and discredit the magician.

The movie was directed by Neil Burger and based on a short story by Steven Millhauser titled, "Eisenheim the Illusionist"-an intriguing tale of magic, love, politics and egos. Like a great magic trick, the film serves an involving setup and a satisfying payoff.

Misdirection

The movie evokes a definite time and place. Norton thoroughly inhabits his role as the magician. Biel, as Sophie, is mostly believable--a welcome surprise--and Giamatti’s Inspector, who is caught between the Prince and the magician, is spot on. Somewhat problematic is Sewell’s prince who’s arrogant ways and wild-eyed posturing create a cartoon-style evil villain that is nearly comical and doesn’t fit the film.

Solid performances, excellent period costumes and sets and lots of care result in a generally interesting picture. But it bogs down just before it reveals its secrets at the end.

Fictional Magic

With all of the prerelease hype, I was expecting a film that recreated many classic illusions and effects that I’ve read about in history books. It would have been pure bliss to view a recreated magic show with period illusions, mechanical effects, automatons, costumes and presentations.

While the film does offer a take on Robert Houdin’s light and heavy box and mechanical orange tree, they have been embellished far beyond what turn of the century audiences would have seen. And I’m almost certain that the light and heavy illusion depicted here is physically impossible.

More Than Smoke and Mirrors

Most of the magic, particularly the crucial, plot-turning appearance of apparitions, are solely the result of modern-day digital effects and video-editing. Such illusions don’t exist today. And they clearly go far beyond the illusions of the period that could have included Pepper’s Ghost and the Blue Room.

Norton performs some nice flourishes and basic ball manipulations. According to the credits, Ricky Jay and Michael Weber acted as magic consultants.

But if you’re expecting to see period magic, be warned that the magic here is more akin to the digitally-created creatures in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars than to modern or historical effects and illusions. Real period magic, the kind that could be performed live on stage during the era, would have been welcome. But I realize that this is just a movie that has its own agenda.

Despite this rant about the magic, the film is an adequate one that is mostly entertaining. If anything, it's refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a magician in a mainstream movie. Unfortunately, this is all too uncommon.

-Wayne N. Kawamoto

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