There is a certain fascination most people have with magic. The thought of making something happen through supernatural means has invoked amazement and fear in people since just about the start of recorded history. The Illusionist, loosely based on the Steven Millhauser's story, ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’ shows the intersection of such magical abilities against the more reality oriented backgrounds of politics, society and romance. Not only does this film contain all those time tested elements it has the added hook of being a period piece, set in Vienna in the last days of the nineteenth century. Back then the public would rush to theaters to watch men wave their arms and perform what were certainly supernatural feats. Like the Las Vegas illusionists of today’s world there was a celebrity surrounding these men and they were permitted to move in social circles normally denied to them.
As a teenager Eisenheim (Edward Norton) was in love the young duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Any possibility of a relationship is doomed before it can get much of start since Sophie was much further up the social ladder than Eisenheim could ever hope to achieve. With his chances at love thwarted Eisenheim sets off to see the world and hone his burgeoning talents win magic and illusions. Upon his return to Vienna Eisenheim learns that Sophie has become engaged to the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). During a performance Eisenheim could not resist making a laughing stock out of the Crown Prince. Although his show is a hit he is all but banned from performing in Vienna. While this should be a low point for Eisenheim he reconnects with Sophie when she volunteers for one of his tricks and soon they finally they fulfill their long simmering love. This is only secondary for Leopold since he has far bigger fish to fry. He is in the middle of a plot to overthrown his father, the King, and take control of the throne. Sophie and Eisenheim plan to run off and elope but as part of the royalty she is obliged to try to stop the sinister plot of Leopold. Leopold forces the chief police inspector Url (Paul Giamatti) into following Sophie. When the prince learns of their affair he kills her in a fit of rage. Being the crown prince and all it is just about impossible to accuse let alone convict Leopold. It’s good to be king and it’s not bad being next inline either. Eisenheim falls into a deep depression but manages to pull himself together. He takes over a dilapidated theater and puts on a new show. In it he apparently is able to summon the dead. The show becomes so popular that Leopold is not able to shut it down. The Prince dons a disguise to attend the show where Eisenheim calls forth the spirit of the late, lamented Sophie who states that her murder is in the theater. Panicked, the Prince gets Url to try to stop the show. Eisenheim refuses and before he can be framed for the murder and apprehended he disappears from sight before the whole audience.
This film is based on the atmosphere that it creates. It is more than just recreating Vienna in the early 1900’s but also the flair of the stage magicians and illusionists of that time. It succeeds in doing this and is able to pull the audience almost literally back in time. This was a more gentile time when people dressed to the nines to attend a performance. Those in the cheap seats could look down and see not only the performers but the aristocratic members of royalty as well. The film does try its best to juggle many different genres. It has to balance a touch of political thriller with fantasy and a love story. It is not the best on any particular type of film but the combination does work better than I thought it would. Since it is difficult for the audience to identify with either the illusionist or the royalty it is a good move to have the narrator a common man, the inspector. This movie is also an above average mystery. Little clues and red herrings are nicely placed in the film that the audience has to sort though. Unlike so many films today this one will require the audience to pay attention. This is the sophomore effort for writer-director Neil Burger. He has a natural knack for pacing a film and holding the narrative of the story line. Of course the cinematography by Dick Pope has a lot to do with this film. Together they provide the right environment for this stellar group of actors.
Edward Norton is at the point of his career where he has the dream of any actor. He finds steady work but is able to pick scripts that are able to showcase his unique presentation. He can switch between the most laid back of characters to one that is completely flamboyant. For this role he took on the task of learning many of the slight of hand tricks required by his character. This not only removed the need for some extra cgi shots but greatly enhanced the intimate feel of the film. Norton is able to show a man that may make an audience adore him but he is unable to find happiness with the woman he has always loved. Jessica Biel should give a sizable bonus to her manager. She has been building her career and her talent steadily since her premier on the long running television hit, ‘7th Heaven’. She is willing to take risks as with the ill fated ‘Stealth’ but here she gives a solid, emotionally complex performance. This film represents her transition from minor roles to one that rally lets her shine. Paul Giamatti seems to be in just about every third movie released today. He has made his career with quirky character parts but is now letting the audience e know he can hold his own with the best out there. He has the right combination of dark humor with the perennially persistent Victorian era detective. When you need an actor for a darker role a casting supervisor cannot do much better than Rufus Sewell. He has a depth that he is able to tap into that mesmerizes the audience.
Like many DVD releases today 20th Century Fox has decided to provide both a Pan & Scan and widescreen version. While the P&S versions never give the whole picture it is especially important in a film like this that you get every pixel of each frame. The color palette is excellent. The transfer is well balanced and crisp. The Dolby 5.1 audio has a reasonably good channel separation from the front speakers and a solid ambience created by the rears. There are a few extras provided but nothing out of the ordinary. There is the almost required making of featurette and a theatrical trailer. The featurette with Jessica Biel does have a little more than usual. Her enthusiasm carries the little piece. Over all this is a solid film that is worth having.