The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist

We're both adults here; we'll flip for it. Winner gets top billing, loser gets this cherry tomato.

(2006) Thriller (Yari Film Releasing) Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Karl Johnson, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Blane . Directed by Neil Burger.

Reality is, in reality, made up entirely of our own perceptions. Look at a picture of a clown and you might see an object of gaiety, or for some, a terrifying figure with homicidal tendencies. The picture hasn’t changed any between one viewing and the next, but the way we perceive it always does. In some rare cases, perception can actually change reality to a degree.

That is what illusionists count on. During the 19th century, performers of magic were referred to as “illusionists” rather than magicians since those rationally-minded people of that era knew that these performers were not creating magic but rather, illusions of magic. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, one of the best and most popular illusionists is the great Eisenheim (Norton), a man of humble birth who had as a young boy (Aaron Johnson) fallen in love with a young Countessa, Sophia (Tomlinson). However, class distinctions being what they are, the two were separated and Eisenheim went on to Asia to study under the masters of illusion.

His shows get the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) of the Vienna Police, who has the ear of the Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). Uhl, an amateur magician himself, is thoroughly entranced by the illusions perpetrated by Eisenheim, particularly that of an orange tree that apparently grows miraculously from a seed to a fruit-bearing tree in a matter of moments. The Crown Prince decides to attend a show himself, bringing with him his retinue, which now includes a grown-up Sophia (Biel). When Leopold sends up Sophia to participate in an elaborate illusion, the two childhood friends reconnect.

Leopold, on the other hand, is a man who prides himself on his intellect and is frustrated that he cannot debunk Eisenheim’s illusions out of hand, so he invites him for a private performance at his hunting lodge. Eisenheim, who has never learned how to be circumspect around those with power, humiliates Leopold which gets his show shut down.

There are forces at work however, that even the great illusionist can’t control. Leopold is set on marrying Sophia, which will bring Hungary solidly behind him in a forthcoming coup against his own father, the reigning emperor. Eisenheim and Sophia find themselves as pawns in a very deadly game, and as smart pawns are wont to do, they decide to take their pieces off the board and get the heck out of Dodge. However, the crazed Prince whom, it is rumored, once pushed a woman out of a balcony to hide the bruises he gave her during a sexual encounter, isn’t the sort to let them go easily. When things go terribly wrong, Eisenheim has no choice but to turn to darker powers to bring down the corrupt prince.

This is a solidly made movie, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. Filmed in Prague, Burger evokes pre-World War I Vienna beautifully, filming mostly in shades of sepia and black and white. This gives the whole movie a kind of washed-out quality, not unlike looking at antique photographs.

Norton and Giamatti are two actors who can always be depended upon to give a terrific performance. Both do fine jobs in their roles, with Giamatti getting a little more to work with than Norton. Jessica Biel, who hitherto has been essentially a pretty face/nice body sort, does a surprisingly good turn as the strong-willed but trapped countess, caught in an untenable situation.

If there is a problem with this movie, it is that the filmmakers tend to telegraph the twists and turns a little too much. I found myself guessing well ahead of time what was about to transpire and I know Da Queen was doing the same. I would consider us fairly well-educated filmgoers, but not particularly brilliant. I think I would have appreciated a bit more misdirection in the script. Also, the accents affected in the movie could be better. A note to filmmakers – if the film is set in a German-speaking country, we all figure the characters are speaking in German without having to have all the actors sound like Colonel Klink. Unless the actors are actually speaking German in the movie and periodically speak English, there’s no need to have them speaking in heavy accents. After all, shouldn’t they theoretically be speaking in their native tongue?

Be that as it may, this is a nice atmospheric period piece that has some elements of genuine creepiness and a nice surprise or two. The effects are not really groundbreaking, but are well-executed and serve to enhance the story, rather than the other way around. I was a little disappointed but still, I didn’t think they did too badly.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific perforances by Giamatti, Norton and (shocker) Beal. Great cinematography and location really evokes the era and the place.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too predictable, particularly when it came to the twists and turns.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sexuality and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie is entirely fictional, it is loosely based on the Mayerling incident, in which Austrian crown prince Rudolph and his mistress were found dead at his hunting lodge on January 30, 1889.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.9M on a $16.5M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.


TOMORROW: Take Me Home Tonight