January 9, 2007
The Illusionist and The Prestige were released in theatres in 2006 and featured 19th century magicians as their protagonists. However, the latter was backed and promoted by a major Hollywood studio while the former was a modestly budgeted independent film. As a result, The Illusionist probably didn’t receive the kind of exposure it deserved. Both films also differed radically in tone. While, The Prestige focused on the rising competition between two magicians and the dangerous lengths they went to top one another, The Illusionist was a deeply romantic film about lovers separated by class.
Based on the short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser, the film’s focus is a love triangle between Eisenheim (Norton), a popular magician, Sophie (Biel), a beautiful duchess, and the arrogant Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends but because they came from different parts of the country’s social strata – she from aristocracy and he was the son of a cabinetmaker – they could never be together. Many years pass and he travels the world, becoming a master of illusions while she becomes engaged to the heir of a very powerful dynasty. However, when Eisenheim returns, he and Sophie rekindle their relationship which quickly blossoms into a love affair much to the chagrin of Leopold who instructs Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) to run Eisenheim out of town on trumped up charges. This sets in motion a series of fascinating, sometimes tragic events that play out like one of Eisenheim’s impressively staged illusions.
Edward Norton is well cast as the intensely charismatic magician. He uses his piercing eyes and commanding presence, complete with clearly enunciated speech with a slight Viennese accent, to effectively play Eisenheim. It’s a potentially showy role that Norton relishes at the right moments but also underplays in others. It’s a wonderfully modulated performance that suggests a hint of arrogance (like when he makes Leopold look momentarily foolish during a performance) with a vulnerability that lies underneath and that Sophie’s presence brings out.
Paul Giamatti is also excellent as Uhl, the audience surrogate. He narrates the film and is also a conflicted character, torn between his loyalty to Leopold and his sympathy with Eisenheim. Uhl fancies himself an “amateur conjurer” and is fascinated with how the magician pulls of his illusions. He’s an average bureaucrat, a humble servant of the state in some respects with magic as a form of escape from his job. The battle of wits between him and Eisenheim are well-played. Both are intelligent men who are very careful and meticulous in how they deal with their professions.
The stunning Jessica Biel looks luminous in each and every shot. She’s mainly known for appearing in forgettable Hollywood fluff like Summer Catch (2001) and Stealth (2005) but recently she’s been trying to branch out and pick more substantial projects like Elizabethtown (2005) and Home of the Brave (2006). To her credit, she manages to hold her own against veteran actors like Norton, Giamatti and Rufus Sewell as a woman trapped between the rigid constraints of aristocracy and the freedom of being with her true love.
The story of The Illusionist is deceptively simple: a love story on the surface but this is actually a bit of misdirection on director Neil Burger’s part as we must pay attention to every detail. Nothing is what it seems as he orchestrates the entire film like one of Eisenheim’s illusions. The attention to period detail (with Prague doubling for 19th century Vienna) is well done. It’s never overwhelming but just enough to give us a flavour of the times. To this end, Burger employs a sepia tone resembling an old, faded photograph. Ultimately, The Illusionist works as an engaging mystery and a love story wherein we hope that Eisenheim and Sophie can, as she wishes early on, disappear together, but of course it is never that easy.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Neil Burger. He talks about what drew him to the short story and why he wanted to make it into a movie. The filmmaker found it very cinematic and expanded upon it for the film. For example, he talks about how he created the character of Sophie as a love interest for Eisenheim. Burger points out that all the actors learned how to do their own sleight of hand tricks whenever possible and reveals how many of the practical illusions were done. He also speaks intelligently about the film’s themes and character motivations. This is an excellent and informative track that covers many aspects of the production.
“The Making of The Illusionist” is a standard promotional featurette with the actors talking briefly about their characters and the story of the film with clips from the movie.
“Jessica Biel on The Illusionist” features some of the soundbites from the previous featurette as she talks briefly about why she wanted to do this film.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.