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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 05:13 am

A trick and a treat

Things aren’t always as they seem in The Illusionist

The Illusionist Running Time: 1:50 Rated PG-13

Nothing is quite what it seems in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, an adaptation of the short story by Steven Millhauser about a master magician who ruffles the feathers of the Austrian aristocracy at the turn of the 20th century. Not only one of the most entertaining films of the year, Burger’s work is also one of the most timely, speaking of the abuse of political power, deception on a national scale, and the exploitation of class differences.

Illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a master showman who becomes the talk of Vienna, playing to packed houses and earning the attention of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a petty man who becomes obsessed with exposing Eisenheim as a fraud. At the prince’s direction, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) hunts for any incriminating evidence about the magician and discovers that Eisenheim was once acquainted with Leopold’s fiancée, Sophie (Jessica Biel) — a relationship that is subsequently rekindled.

Once Eisenheim and Sophie’s romance takes center stage, a game of cat and mouse ensues, not only between Uhl and his quarry but also between Burger and the viewer. Misdirection is the director’s tool, and he uses it well, distracting us with an intriguing subplot that deals with the way in which Eisenheim’s actions change, from that of a conjuror of illusions to that of a man seemingly able to summon the spirits of the dead.

Norton’s trademark intensity and Giamatti’s naturalistic approach complement each other wonderfully, but the biggest surprise here is Biel, who gives a surprisingly effective and mature performance.

The Illusionist provides a parable for modern times, with its warning that we shouldn’t believe everything we see or hear. This is underscored wonderfully through the lighting scheme; early on the director employs dark, sepia-tinged tones, but these give way to lighter colors as the film progresses and the truth of this tale is revealed. This sort of attention to detail is a welcome change as an otherwise vacuous summer movie season comes to an end.

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