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'The Illusionist': A Gorgeous Bag of Tricks

Hollywood does not regard summer as a time for costume epics, unless the costumes are made of spandex. Historical movies tend to be released in the fall. But The Illusionist, a romantic drama set in the early 1900s, is bucking that tradition.

At the very outset of the film, a man in his shirtsleeves walks onto a stage that is empty except for a single chair. He sits down, raises his hand, and conjures an image before a sellout crowd: a beautiful woman. As the footlights flicker, the man begins to tear up, and a police inspector standing off to one side orders his men to surround the stage. Then the inspector strides onto it himself to confront the crowd and to arrest the illusionist for charlatanism and threats against the empire.

Threats against the empire? How did we reach this pretty pass? Only a few months earlier, the magician, played with fierce concentration by Edward Norton, had been the toast of Vienna -- making orange trees materialize from empty pots, enlisting butterflies to transport handkerchiefs, and capturing a soul in a mirror, at a performance attended by the crown prince.

At that show, Norton asks for an assistant from the audience, and the prince volunteers the woman he plans to marry, the Duchess von Techen. As she approaches Eisenheim on the stage, the magician's eyes widen slightly. Ah, but a glance has passed between them. And it soon becomes clear to the inspector, whose job is to protect the prince's interests, that that's not all that has passed between them.

Much is made of class differences in this classy film, but it's mostly about a magician who's willing to bring down the whole Hungarian Empire as long as he gets the girl. Considering that the girl is Jessica Biel, it's hard to blame him. Director Neil Burger delights in getting period details right -- playing with filters and unusual film stocks to make the images look older, and showing how stage trickery was really managed a century or so ago.

On one occasion, Paul Giamatti's inspector gets the illusionist to explain a trick so clearly that I suspect lots of audience members will be attempting it themselves on the way out of the theater. (I did, and it works). In short, the illusions are smart, as is the script. The photography is gorgeous, as is Biel. And the line between truth and illusion is blurred so persuasively that for a moment or two, you may even believe that a romantic costume drama could stand up to all those special-effects blockbusters in the dog days of summer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.