It's the end of summer, the time when Hollywood studios let the dogs out on unsuspecting audiences, all the films that should never have been made in the first place. But sometimes they make a mistake and let out a good one, as they have this time with "The Illusionist," a marvelous entertainment written and directed by Steven Burger from a short story by Steven Millhauser.
The year is 1900, the city is Vienna, in the last throes of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a young magician named Eisenheim has taken the city by storm. He can conjure up ghosts on stage, he can do magic no one else has ever seen. He's called The Illusionist, and he's played by Edward Norton as a quiet, almost self-effacing man, as though he were simply the vessel through whom the magic is revealed. As the film opens, he's being arrested at the theatre by the chief police Inspector Uhl, Paul Giamatti, for disturbing the public order.
The film then takes us back to Eisenheim's boyhood, where he meets an old itinerant magician who shows him amazing tricks. The boy's best friend is young Sophie - the two of them want to run away together but her family won't allow it. Now, years later, in Vienna, the Crown Prince - evil Rufus Sewell - has come to Eisenheim's performance and brought with him none other than Sophie, now played by Jessica Biel, who is to be his new bride. When Eisenheim calls for a volunteer, the Prince has her come up on stage, and so the two meet again.
Will they rekindle their love? Will the Crown Prince have the police inspector destroy them out of jealousy? Will the inspector's conscience get the better of him? My lips are sealed, and so should yours be. Just sit back and have a wonderful time enjoying Eisenheim's magic - something that rarely works in a film, because it's so easy to cheat using special effects in the editing. Here, though, in "The Illusionist," director Neil Burger lets us see what the audience sees, and I promise you'll be amazed along with everyone else.
Burger has shot the film in sepia, which is the use of color filters to get a distancing that sets a period film apart, and keeps it from being too literal. And he's had Philip Glass provide the softly beautiful music, which is the perfect choice to go with Norton's quiet, intense performance as the illusionist.
The film has a surprise, almost Shakespearean ending, which I will not give away; it is, after all, a film about illusions. What is real, though, is that in a dismal summer for movies "The Illusionist" almost saves the day.