THE ILLUSIONIST: Moved by sleight of hand


THIS BIZARRE tale of intrigue, magic and murder follows Eisenheim (Norton), a stage magician with extraordinary powers, in turn of the century Vienna.

After falling in love with Sophie (Biel) as a teenager, a duchess well above his social standing, Eisenheim leaves his village to travel the world and perfect his magic. He returns a master illusionist, only to find that Sophie is expected to marry the ruthless Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell).

After humiliating the prince during a private show, Eisenheim finds his hit performance banned from Vienna. This leads to a rendezvous with Sophie, during which they finally consummate their love for each other.

Reunited, Eisenheim and Sophie make plans to elope, however Sophie reveals that Leopold is planning a coup d’etat to take control of Austria from his aging father, the king. Unbeknown to them, Leopold has had them followed by Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) and kills Sophie in a drunken rage. Leopold’s aristocratic social standing makes any kind of accusations against him unthinkable. As Eisenheim plunges into despair and the citizens of Vienna begin to suspect Leopold of murder, Uhl begins to observe Eisenheim’s actions more closely.

Uhl’s struggle with his conflict of interest is the most intriguing part of the plot. Although he is beholden to protect the interests of the Crown Prince, he is from the same background and social standing as Eisenheim and obviously feels compassion for his situation. Giamatti plays the role convincingly and develops into the film’s strongest character.

Although the plot is set in Vienna, much of the filming took place in the gothic surroundings of Prague, which adds to the supernatural and mysterious aura of the film. Director Neil Berger doesn’t rely heavily on special effects to keep the audience’s attention as the strong script and array of characters drive the film through all 110 minutes.

The lesson learnt from this movie would be: don’t mess with an illusionist, especially one like Eisenheim, who is not your average party magician. Not only can he bring an orange tree to full bloom in seconds and bid butterflies to materialise out of thin air, but it would appear he can summon the spirits of the dead. For the role, Norton trained with UK magician James Freedman and learnt sleight of hand and stage magic techniques to avoid computer generated images where possible.

The film will be popular among those who want to believe that supernatural ability is within human grasp. Some of the events may require a considerable amount of imagination as the more spectacular tricks could never have been pulled off before a live audience, but the conviction of Burger and his skilled cast, along with the enigmatic musical score of Philip Glass and the trappings of Viennese splendor provide a persuasive argument, which conjures a surprising final twist.

RATING: * * *

*   missable

* *   reasonable

* * *   entertaining

* * * *   very good

* * * * * outstanding