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In late nineteenth century Vienna, renowned illusionist Eisenheim is reunited with the Duchess von Teschen when she is volunteered from the audience to participate in an illusion during one of his performances. Despite having not seen each other in fifteen years when they were teenagers, they almost immediately recognize each other as Eduard Abramovich and Sophie von Teschen, they who had a doomed romance at that time due to their class differences. The Duchess is soon to be wed to the Crown Prince Leopold in what would be for him a marriage solely in pursuit of power: overthrowing his father, the Emperor Leopold, as well as overtaking the Hungarian side of the empire. The Crown Prince is known to use violence against women if it suits his needs or purposes. As such, the Duchess, who realizes that she still loves Eisenheim and he her, can never leave the Crown Prince without it jeopardizing her life. After Eisenheim humiliates the Crown Prince at a private show which results in an ... Written by
The character Prince Leopold says during a performance of Eisenheim at the palace: "He tries to trick you ... I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?" This reference is to a famous slogan the RJ Reynolds tobacco company used in the 1930's that said "It's fun to be fooled ... it's more fun to know." The slogan was combined with adverts showing the secrets behind famous mysteries. The impetus for this was a tribute to the popularity of the American magician Horace Goldin. See more »
Duchess Sophie von Teschen reveals to Eduard that Crown Prince Leopold intends to win over the Hungarians by aligning himself with her family. In reality, the Duchy of Teschen was part of the Austrian half of the Empire, so even if the Crown Prince had married her, it would not have had that much of a impact on the Empire's Hungarian citizens. See more »
woman in audience:
It's her. I know it's her! She wants to tell us something.
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"The Illusionist" is a unique film that combines two often stale genres into something fresh: the lush romantic period piece and the "AHA!" mystery thriller (a genre M. Night Shamalyan has single-handedly run into the ground recently). Helmed by a first time director (Neil Burger), based on a short story, and featuring an eclectic cast, "The Illusionist" had the perfect set-up to be a monumental disaster. With a graceful slight-of-hand, it ends up being something very good.
As with any run-of-the-mill period piece, there's a lavish attention to the set designs and costumes, here representing late nineteenth century Vienna. Director Burger puts a nice spin on the same-old, same-old with an acute attention to lighting (especially in the dreamily over-exposed flashbacks) and old fashioned camera techniques (witness the circular camera's eye closing to transition from scenes) to give the film the feel of being a fond memory of a classic movie from a bygone era.
The central romance where Edward Norton's title character and Jessica Biel's Dutchess are star-crossed lovers kept apart because of class and society, had all the makings of a snore-inducing cheese-athon. Executed in an understated manner that services the greater plot, it ends up being anything but. Norton's performance, especially in the second half of the film when he turns into a man of very few words, had the potential to be one-note. As an actor, he speaks volumes with his eyes. Biel, a former teen idol and TV star, seemed a horrific choice for this role. She pulls of the nifty trick of being quite good. Even better are Rufus Sewell as the tyrannical crown-prince and Paul Giamatti as the chief inspector. Using a short story as the source material, characterizations had the potential to be paper-thin, but these seasoned veterans make the most of their lines and scenes adding terror, humor, and gravitas through their vocal and physical deliveries where lesser actors would've been wooden and cold. The entire cast also worked together very well utilizing their odd, vaguely European and aristorcatic accent. Everyone used it so consistently and earnestly, it didn't seem to matter after awhile that the accent was unnecessary.
A more over-eager or pretentious director may have completely sabotaged the fantastic ending to "The Illusionist" and cheated the audience. Handled deftly by Burger, the grande finale where "all is revealed" is a wholly organic and satisfying conclusion that rewards the patient viewer and fulfills the lofty promises of the themes presented throughout the work.
"The Illusionist" boasts an excellent music score from minimalist composer Phillip Glass that easily rivals his great work done in "Candyman" and "The Hours." Norton and Giamatti treat us to some of the best "staring" since the days of silent films. The look on Giamatti's face and the positioning of his raised eyebrows as he watches Norton perform his illusions coupled with Norton's eyes as he pulls off his tricks are priceless.
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