July 2024

The Illusionist (2006)

DIRECTOR: Neil Burger


Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell


The Illusionist is the kind of low-key, independent, art house fare that often gets lost in the shuffle among the action flicks and romantic comedies, which is kind of a shame, because while  it aims to be fairly lightweight entertainment, isn’t anything terribly ambitious, The Illusionist is a lot of fun- a pleasant, enjoyable brew of romance, mystery, and magic.

It is 1900, and the enigmatic magician known as Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) is the sensation of Vienna, performing feats which seem so impossible that some believe he actually possesses supernatural powers. Such is Eisenheim’s popularity that he attracts the notice of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who makes it a personal mission to debunk him, even volunteering his intended, Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel) as a participant in one of his tricks. But Eisenheim is startled when he recognizes Sophie as the woman he loved as a boy. She soon realizes who he is as well, and it isn’t long before they rekindle their romance. This earns Eisenheim the bitter enmity of Leopold, who orders his flunky Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to shut his magic show down.

Since both are period pieces featuring magicians as central characters, there have been comparisons made between The Illusionist and The Prestige , but this isn’t really appropriate, and the two films’ plots and aims are very different. Some of the most fascinating scenes in The Prestige were those examining in intricate detail the secrets of the characters’ magic tricks. The Illusionist isn’t as interested in a meticulous study of the craft. In fact, it leaves room for ambiguity about whether Eisenheim is just a skillful magician or whether he really does command supernatural forces, with only the closing moments making everything clear. The Illusionist’s plot isn’t nearly as twisty and complex as The Prestige, nor does it aim to be; its central “twist” isn’t hard to guess, and alert audience members can have it all figured out well before the end revelations, although doing so is part of the fun.

The role of the inscrutable Eisenheim, who plays his cards close to his chest and coolly, calmly, sets his plan in motion, doesn’t require the demonstration of emotional range that Edward Norton brings to, for example, Primal Fear, but he handles the part with a quiet intensity. Some of The Illusionist’s twists aren’t hard to figure out, but Norton’s enigmatic performance ensures there’s always a little mystery surrounding the central character. Jessica Biel projects simple charm, although she also doesn’t have a particularly challenging role. Paul Giamatti, usually cast as nerdy losers in comedic roles, is surprisingly effective playing against type as a no-nonsense police inspector who tries to puzzle out what’s going on. In fact, it could be argued that Uhl is the most complex and intriguing character in the movie- he’s allied with the Crown Prince in the hopes of career advancement, but is himself fascinated by the Illusionist’s tricks and finds that his true sympathies lie more with Eisenheim. And Rufus Sewell makes Leopold a cold, petty, egotistical figure whom it’s easy to root against.  Smaller roles include Eddie Marsan as Eisenheim’s manager, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the young Eisenheim in the opening extended flashback.

The Illusionist sets fairly modest goals for itself and succeeds at them. With its limited budget, period piece setting, classical score, and subdued, low-key tone, it feels like a modest indie movie, but features a relatively high-profile cast. The recreation of turn-of-the-century Vienna at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is impeccable; aside from the accents on display (of which Paul Giamatti’s might be the most consistent), there is nothing to pull the audience out of the illusion that they are in Victorian-era Vienna. The film is shot in a golden tinge that further gives it the chromatic feel of something set in an idealized Victorian past. The film may have had a modest budget, but director Neil Burger keeps this from being apparent. The settings are sumptuous and convincing, and the few special effects are effective without calling attention to themselves. Viewers may be surprised to know that most of Eisenheim’s tricks in the film are based on magic tricks that were actually performed in the 1800s (including ones that were surprisingly complex and sophisticated for their day), and Burger doesn’t overuse CGI. There are nice moments of interplay between the characters, especially an early scene at the palace where Leopold intends on debunking Eisenheim but instead finds himself the one humiliated, and Uhl’s dilemma between his loyalty to the Prince and his own reluctance to shut Eisenheim down.

There’s nothing particularly deep, dark, or substantial about The Illusionist; the story is a romantic fable with a sumptuous Victorian setting and dash of magic and mystery to spice things up, and it competently fills out its purpose as diverting entertainment. Don’t look for profound meaning or try to figure out how it’s all done, just sit back to what sure-handed direction, beautiful period setting, and capable cast have wrought, and enjoy the magic show.