The Illusionist Edward Norton's Merlin is Magnificent

Buy the popcorn, sit back and enjoy the Yari Film Group’s lyrical mystery, The Illusionist. This well-crafted story, presented in mesmerizing pictures and elevated by Edward Norton’s mastermind act, is the best picture in eight months of middling movies.

Romantic intrigue provides the motive power for this intelligent puzzler, which rewards those who think. Following the clues is an enjoyable exercise, though one tends to get lost in The Illusionist's Viennese beauty, enhanced by a melodic Philip Glass score. Editing and photography afford a soft-focus, genuinely elegant sense of motion and style, with graceful transitions. The whole reel flickers like a silent movie.

With smart, economical words and inviting music, The Illusionist sounds as rich as it looks, and, while much has been made of its visual appeal, credit goes to writer and director Neil Burger for his meticulous selectivity. The sumptuousness benefits from an uninterrupted story progression, the soul of which lies in the eyes, Burger’s delicate tool of choice for eliciting one’s emotional response.

Things begin with a European village, a strange road traveler, and a bright, peasant boy who is teased for being different and couldn’t possibly care less. Friendship sprouts between the boy—a craftsman’s son who dabbles in magic—and a confident, aristocratic girl who is drawn to his impervious manner. He performs tricks for her and, later, he bestows an inventive, intimate gift. Gazing into one another’s fresh faces, they form an impenetrable bond. The world is their domain.

In one violent night, it suddenly ends when she is swept away by the forces of traditionalism. Many years pass before they meet again. She has become a simple yet beautiful duchess (Jessica Biel) who is pursued by a dark royal prince (Rufus Sewell) while the peasant youth has transformed himself into Eisenheim, a gentle magician with a serious manner and an hypnotic presence.

Stepping onto Vienna’s finest stages, he pauses, gestures and intones with precision. Regaling audiences with fresh oranges, fluttering birds and exotic butterflies—the picture’s leitmotif—Mr. Norton’s spellbinding Eisenheim is at once sensual and strong.

He is also contemptuous of monarchy, which he easily mocks, and, for this reason, the prince distrusts the popular performer, ordering the police commissioner (Paul Giamatti) to shut Eisenheim down. However, he gains in stature—and rakes in the money, humorously pleasing his loyal manager—and his work acquires an air of omnipotence. Everyone, including Giamatti’s intrepid detective, finds his increasingly startling show impossible to explain.

Major developments are best left unsaid but they stem from the intersection of the sadistic prince’s lust for power and the notion that Eisenheim has tapped into some sort of portal to the afterlife. As words, music and pictures merge in one grand finale of murder, rebellion and rebirth, The Illusionist arcs upward toward something like an exalted fantasy.

Sewell and Giamatti excel in key roles, Aaron Johnson and Eleanor Tomlinson are superb as the young lovers and Biel is fine as the duchess, though she cannot match Mr. Norton’s superior technique. He is one of Hollywood’s greatest actors and his Eisenheim is an outstanding career achievement.

Picking apart the mechanics spoils the imaginative pleasures, so accept The Illusionist as an invitation-only engagement for the active mind. It exists as a mystery with beauty, passion and purpose—a simple, spectacular display of the idea that nothing is what it seems.

Originally published August 28, 2006 by Box Office Mojo

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