One of the best films not to win any Oscars (or even an Independent Spirit Award) this year was “The Illusionist,” which recently was released on DVD. A real shame because it was such a great movie. At least it won a Chizfilm Award (for Best Cinematography and honorary mention for Best Supporting Male Actor, Best Male Actor, Best Director, and Best Feature).
Based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser, the movie tells the story of the excellent Austrian magician Eisenheim (Ed Norton), a century ago, who falls in love with a noblewoman named Sophie (Jessica Biel) who’s engaged to marry the prince of Austria-Hungary (Rufus Sewell). The prince’s chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) is ordered to arrest the magician but he finds it hard to charge him with anything. His ambition and loyalty to the prince conflict with his duty to the law and to the truth. The plot is further complicated when Sophie is murdered presumably by the prince. Then Eisenheim, in an attempt to accuse the culprit, resorts to an amazing performance which seems to call back the dead.
It’s hard to say much without giving too much away, but it is an extremely interesting story. It’s fiction, but it does take place within a historical framework. I do not know, nor was I able to find out, if the prince actually existed, or was based on a real person of the time, but the background of political intrigue really gives depth to the story and even influences the relationship of Eisenheim and Sophie.
The acting by all four principle actors was excellent, but most particularly by Norton and Giamatti, who also narrates the story. And, as already mentioned, the cinematography, by Director of Photography Dick Pope, was brilliant and dramatic. I really loved the dim lighting and the strong contrasts—especially in the close-ups on Norton’s face. It was also interesting, in places, where the image was made to resemble films of the early 20th Century.
This movie is true magic—it uses misdirection as it reveals its mystery—and it also has a great twist at the end. Trust me; it’s worth waiting for.
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