Monday, June 14, 2010

Reality or Illusion

By David Luhrssen
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Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) hardens his face into a mask of intense concentration, holding his audience spellbound in the gas lit darkness of a fin de siecle Vienna theater. The camera glides forward to reveal that the hall is ringed with uniformed police and cuts to a mousy little man in the audience, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Eisenheim is conjuring an apparition on stage and the authorities are determined to stop the show before it gets out of hand.

So begins The Illusionist (2006), one of the few films from the last decade I enjoyed watching more than once. It’s an intriguing tale set in the heart of a decaying empire, involving a ruthless crown prince, his fiancée the Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biehl) and her unexpected encounter with the boy she loved, the mysterious cabinetmaker’s son who grew up to be Austria’s greatest stage magician. The Illusionist has just been issued in a DVD/Blu-ray set.

Director Neil Burger turned the story into a film of unusual visual richness. Many scenes glow with the warmth of 19th century landscape painting or resemble the hand-tinted frames of early cinema. There are other nods to the nascent days of filmmaking, including scenes that open and close in an iris. The cast gives superb performances in a low key, especially the quietly intense Norton and the thoughtful, conflicted Giamatti.

Eisenheim is no mere parlor trickster, a fact that angers the rationalistic crown prince, a man of ostensibly “progressive ideas” who is plotting to overthrow his father, the beloved Emperor Franz Josef. Among the many duties the prince gives the inspector is the task of discovering how the magician achieves his uncanny wonders, especially when his performances begin to cast a subversive shadow. The Illusionist considers the uncertainty of perception and reality. In its elliptical conclusion, we can marvel over Eisenheim’s skill while wondering how on earth he did it.

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