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Published March 2nd, 2007 | by Coco Forsythe

The Illusionist Review

Classification: PG Director: Neil Burger Rating: 3/5

You wait ages for a film about magicians and then suddenly loads come along at once. Last year we had Wolverine v Batman in The Prestige, later this year we have Magicians, and in the meantime here’s Ed Norton as Eisenheim The Illusionist.

Eisenheim is a mysterious stage magician, who appears in turn-of-the-century Vienna and causes a sensation with his apparently impossible, almost otherworldly tricks. Word soon spreads, and even the pragmatic, worldly Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell) comes to see the show, though he is convinced that Eisenheim is a fraud. But then Leopold encourages his fiancé, Sophie Von Teschen (Biel), to assist the magician on stage, Eisenheim and Sophie recognise each other from their childhood and their dormant love affair is rekindled.

Jealous and baffled, Leopold sets his tame police inspector Uhl (Giamatti) on to spy on Eisenheim, determined to expose him, even as Eisenheim gains a devoted following and celebrity status.

The central story of the film is the duel between the prince and the pauper, with Biel as the prize. Leopold is envious of Eisenheim’s genuine popularity and irritated by his inability to discover the mechanisms behind Eisenheim’s elaborate illusions. He hopes to use Uhl to entrap Eisenheim, but Uhl is torn, admiring the magician. Uhl also harbours increasing doubts about his employer who has some unpleasant skeletons in his closet. The two antagonists represent different ways of being – the peasant who has made good through skill and hard work vs the spoiled aristocrat – the modern vs the past. Sophie, though a member of the aristocracy, is less interested in a suitable marriage than she is in love – Leopold cannot understand her.

The performances, as we expect from actors of this calibre, are excellent, with Giamatti redeeming himself after the dreadful Lady In The Water. Biel’s character is a bit thinly drawn, though she looks lovely, even in jodhpurs. Norton, sporting a rather horrid goatee, is good as always in a rather passive role, and Rufus Sewell, lazy eye and all, is suitably petulant and domineering in turns, channelling his Count Ademar from A Knight’s Tale (another film where a peasant upstart dared to challenge the social order).

Norton apparently spent ages learning the card tricks and all the magic is authentic and never explained. Why, though, do actors always put on cod-British accents when appearing in period films? The characters ought to be speaking German, so what difference would it make if they spoke with their own accents. I preferred the way they did it in Dangerous Liaisons, with the aristocrats speaking in their own American accents and the servant classes Scottish. Still, this is quibbling. I really need to see The Prestige though.

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