"The Illusionist": A elegant adaptation that is — and is not — about illusion
Seattle Times movie critic
Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is pure seduction, its elegant prose sweeping the reader into the distant world of turn-of-the-century Vienna and the mysterious realm of magic. "Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams," says its narrator, weaving a tale of an enigmatic magician whose greatest works inspired controversy. Were the ghosts he conjured up mere parlor tricks, or were they actual souls? No one knew, even after the magician himself faded away.
Neil Burger's elegant film version, titled simply "The Illusionist," does a conjuring trick of its own: It takes Millhauser's words and transforms them into something else, a bit less mysterious but still alluring. In adding a love story, and developing (or creating) several secondary characters, "The Illusionist" becomes more romantic drama than mystery. It is, perhaps, a necessary change: Magic on screen often loses its magic, as we know all too well of the tricks that cameras can play.
But the film works, often beautifully. Burger whirls the audience into another world, all chateaux and cobblestones, where fires burn at the foot of the stage where Eisenheim (Edward Norton) plies his trade. Everything's captured in toasty candlelight, in which dark eyes flicker, and Philip Glass' menacingly lovely score seems to surround the drama in decorative scrollwork, steadily closing in.
The plot — which involves the magician, an ambitious police inspector (Paul Giamatti), a nasty crown prince (Rufus Sewell, with an inky slash of mustache) and a beautiful countess (Jessica Biel) — needn't be summarized here; best to experience its twists afresh. "The Illusionist" is the sort of sepia-toned period fantasy that's less about story than about the way swords are drawn, cloaks are swirled and characters ride through the mist on white horses. While Burger's screenplay isn't always graceful, the movie's lovely enough that you might not notice.
And Norton and Giamatti, two of the more interesting actors working today, create some fire of their own. Norton, quiet and intense, has a perfectly controlled stillness to him. It's a tricky, distant role — the movie depends on his character's mystery — but Norton finds some humanity in the character, delivering a few of his lines with a dry, precise humor. "Perhaps I'll make you disappear," the illusionist tells the crown prince, who's not quite sure if he's joking.
Giamatti, playing a policeman all too aware of his humble roots, is tense and apologetic; he knows he's a bit out of his league. "My father was a ... butcher," he says, and the pause isn't actorly but barely perceptible, the merest hint that the word is an effort. When he smokes a pipe, it's clenched in his teeth; when he smiles, it's tight as a drum. Late in the film, Giamatti's character finally relaxes into a hearty laugh and it's a revelation: He's finally got what he wanted, even if it was just an illusion.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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