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Film isn't quite what you think you'd get



Published: Sat, September 9, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The film stars Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.

By PHIL VILLARREAL

ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Even though "The Illusionist" is set in early 1900s Vienna, all the characters use British accents -- moviedom's one-size-fits-all to cover foreign tongues and general evilness.

The accent is no problem for leads Edward Norton or Paul Giamatti, who are as diverse and talented as any actors around, nor for Rufus Sewell, who has the advantage of actually being British.

The one key cast member you'd expect to have trouble with the accent is Jessica Biel, 24, who played a scream queen in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" a few years ago. But Biel acquits herself well as Sophie, a duchess separated from the peasant magician Edward (Edward Norton), by the cruel, overprotective aristocracy.

On the verge of her engagement to the murderous, megalomaniacal Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell), Sophie catches one of Edward's shows.

Now billing himself as Eisenheim the Illusionist, Edward wows Sophie, as well as Leopold, who instantly considers Edward a threat whom he must crush.

Leopold's henchman is Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), who becomes fascinated with Edward's magic even as he seeks to destroy his career.

They develop a similar dynamic to the Salieri-Mozart rivalry in "Amadeus" (1984). Uhl is at once fascinated and repelled by Edward, whom he grudgingly comes to respect.

Something in the way Uhl meekly asks Edward if he'll explain one of his tricks makes you feel for the otherwise unlikable detective.

What it is

"The Illusionist" is a slickly paced collision-course drama, with four intriguing characters interlocked in furious gamesmanship.

Uhl is the film's most intriguing character because with him tilts the balance of power between justice and corruption. Giamatti's character is nuanced, while Norton makes an able foil with his aloof, underplayed wisdom.

The story is exciting and twist-filled where some period dramas are stiff and slow, and commands your attention with the panache of a master magician.

"The Illusionist" marks new territory for writer/director Neil Burger, whose debut film, "Interview With the Assassin," is a faux documentary on a man who claims to have aided in the JFK assassination.

Having based his screenplay on the Steven Millhauser short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," Burger sets up a series of intricate dramatic stages, then takes them apart plank by plank.

What you see in "The Illusionist" is never quite what you think you'll get.




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