"THE ILLUSIONIST" (2006) Review
Neil Burger wrote and directed this loose adaptation of Steven Millhauser's story called "Eisenheim the Illusionist". This story about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.
The movie’s plot focused upon the romance that had first formed between the magician Eisenheim (Norton) and his childhood friend, the socially superior Sophie, Duchess von Teschen (Biel) – a romance that ends up threatening the political plans of Crown Prince Leopold of Austria-Hungary (Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl’s position with the Vienna police and his role as the Crown Prince’s henchman."THE ILLUSIONIST" began in the middle of the story – with Chief Inspector Uhl revealing Eisenheim ‘s background and childhood friendship with Sophie. The movie continued with the events that led to the Crown Prince’s interest in the magician – Eisenheim’s arrival in Vienna, his reunion with Sophie during a performance and a special performance by the magician for the Crown Prince and his entourage, in which Eisenheim embarrasses the prince for a brief moment.
Sophie appears at Eisenheim’s quarters to warn him about his actions at the royal palace. The two end up declaring their feelings for one another by making love. After Sophie reveals Crown Prince’s Leopold’s reasons for proposing marriage – he needs her Hungarian family connections to build a power base strong enough to usurp his father from the Imperial throne – both come to the conclusion that Leopold would never let her go. Even if they decide to make a run for it, the prince would hunt them down and kill them. Realizing this, Eisenheim decides to unfold plans that would allow Sophie to escape from Leopold’s clutches and guarantee the couple’s future safety and happiness.
I have never read Millhauser’s story about Eisenheim. But I must admit that I became enamored of Burger’s cinematic adaptation since the first time I saw it. The story possessed many elements that made it entertaining and unique for me. One, it had plenty of romance, due to the romance between Eisenheim and Sophie; along with the love triangle between the two and Crown Prince Leopold. It had intrigue from the plot centered around the Crown Prince’s efforts to rid Eisenheim as a rival for not only Sophie’s affections, but those of the Austrian people. It had mystery thanks to Eisenheim’s mind-blowing magic, Chief Inspector Uhl’s attempts to expose it, and the tragic events that dominate the film’s latter half. And Crown Prince Leopold’s plans to dethrone his father, along with his competition with Eisenheim for the Viennese public’s affections gave the movie a political tone. It simply had everything and Burger managed to combine it all with a superb script.
The cast of "THE ILLUSIONIST" contributed to the movie’s superior quality, as well. Edward Norton was superb as the magician Eisenheim. Despite being the movie’s main character, he did a great job in conveying the character’s many personality facets – including his love for Sophie (which makes this role one of Norton’s most romantic), and his contempt toward both Crown Prince Leopold and Chief Inspector Ulh Even more importantly, Norton managed to convey some of these emotional aspects of Eisenheim’s personality, while retaining the man’s enigmatic nature. Jessica Biel literally glowed as Sophie, Duchess von Teschen. Frankly, I believe the character might be one of her best roles. Biel had portrayed Sophie more than just an elegant and charming woman from the Austro-Hungarian ruling class. She revealed Sophie’s inner sadness from her earlier disrupted relationship with Eisenheim and fear of facing a lifetime with the odious Crown Prince. Speaking of which . . . kudos to Rufus Sewell for portraying one of the most complex screen villains in recent years. Sewell’s Leopold was not simply a one-note villain who sneered at everyone he deemed inferior to himself. The actor portrayed the prince as an ambitious and emotional man who desired respect and even love from the public and those close to him. Yet, despite this desire, he seemed incapable of returning such feelings to others, especially Sophie, due to his arrogance and vindictive nature. But if you had asked me which performance in "THE ILLUSIONIST" really impressed me, I would have to say Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl. Giamatti either had the bad or good luck – it depends upon one’s point of view – to portray the most complex character in the movie. This is a man torn between his curiosity over Einheim’s talent as a magician, his ambition to be more than just a policeman, and his sense of justice and outrage toward the tragic event revealed in the second half. Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Ulh is a man literally torn apart over toward whom he should direct his loyalty. And the actor did a superb job in portraying every nuance in the character. In my opinion, he managed to dominate the film without being its main star.
I really do not have much to say about the film’s production values. Granted, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil; along with costume designer Ngila Dickson, and art directors Stefan Kovacik and Vlasta Svoboda, did an admirable job of re-creating turn-of-the-century Vienna on the screen. And yet . . . aside from Dickson’s elegant costumes, I found the movie’s Viennese setting to be slightly colorless. Almost empty. The setting lacked the sharp colors of that particular period shown in other movies like 1969’s "THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD" and 1976’s "THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION".
Despite my complaint against the film’s slightly colorless production designs, I have to give kudos to Neil Burger for writing a rich adaptation of Millhauser’s story. He also did an excellent job of conveying his vision of the story through his direction of the crew and a cast of talented actors that included Norton, Biel, Sewell and Giamatti. "THE ILLUSIONST" is a beautiful and mysterious love story filled with magic and political intrigue. After five years, I still find it enjoyable to watch.