Sleight of Heart

The Illusionist. Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and
Jessica Biel star in a film written by Neil Burger, based on the
short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser, and
directed by Burger.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

In his most famous performances, including Primal Fear, American
History X, and Fight Club, Edward Norton has shown acting chops
involving chilling layers of meaning, where edginess mixes with icy
control. In The Illusionist, an enjoyable enough and nicely
atmospheric diversion from the usual August movie slump, Norton is
more of a cool character throughout, relying on subtle facial
expressions to get the job done. We keep expecting some of the
implosive Norton-esque qualities to emerge.

But control is the essence of Norton’s role here as a late
19th-century magician who seduces theaters full of people into
suspending disbelief. Control is also embedded in the making of
this film, a moody fairytale about deception, mind games, and the
lengths one goes for love. On another interesting level, the film
deals with the historical and cultural transition zone of fin de
siècle Vienna, the time of Freud, Mahler, Klimt, and collisions of
reason and new mysticism.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the film extends much energy in
the way of historical accuracy or assiduous attention to accents,
which waver between assorted modes of generic Euro speak. Director
Neil Burger, who also adapted Steven Millhauser’s original short
story for the screen, is mostly after capturing a mood, setting up
a twister ending, and wallowing in a filmic trick or two.

Playing an investigator with allegiance to the crown prince as
well as to justice, Paul Giamatti is the rational anchor in a story
swirling with elusive, shady, and sometimes seemingly metaphysical
characters. Norton’s elusive illusionist is, at root, driven by a
longstanding love for a woman above his station (Jessica Biel),
whose romantic link to Vienna’s crown prince is an obstacle to
overcome, by whatever quasi-mystical means necessary.

Elements of dramatic energy and empathy seem lacking, yet the
film’s strongest suit may be sensory: between Dick Pope’s elegant
and evocative cinematography that is matched to Philip Glass’s
effectively rippling, textural score (Glass’s true calling, in the
end, may be in film music), it’s clearly a period piece thing. The
film gives its actors a beautiful stage on which to operate, if
coolly — as if recognizing that, in magic, the setup is as
important as the punch line.

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