The Illusionist Casts a Spell
September 5, 2006
by Taylor Pero
It’s not that often that an audience applauds a film at its end. Here is a movie we’ve needed for a long time. It’s a romantic melodrama of a young boy in early 1900s Vienna, (poor, of course), who befriends a girl, Sophie, who is near his age but of noble birth. They bond and he, a woodworker’s son, carves her a special locket and puts his picture inside. Although they meet in secret because of her protector’s disapproval, eventually they are torn apart and forbidden to see one another again. As the dejected boy wanders the countryside alone he meets a magician who instills in him the gift of conjuring.
Fifteen years later the boy, now grown and famous as the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) returns to Vienna to fulfill a theater engagement. His magic is so astonishing that his show is soon the rage of Vienna; word reaches the attention of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Crown Prince attends Eisenheim’s show in the company of his about-to-be-fiancé, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel as Eisenheim’s childhood love grown up). When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience who is not afraid of death, Leopold offers up Sophie. Eisenheim immediately recognizes her, but she does not see him as the boy who fashioned the locket she still wears in remembrance of him. (Pause now to reach for another hanky.)
At a command performance for Crown Prince Leopold, Sophie, and members of the Royal Court, Eisenheim begins his determined offensive on his royal rival by boldly saying, “Perhaps I’ll make you disappear.” Eisenheim performs a stunt calibrated to humiliate and embarrass Leopold to the extent that he later demands the magician’s show be shut down. There must be a way.
Drafted to discredit Eisenheim is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who must do the Prince’s bidding. He is fascinated by Eisenheim’s seemingly supernatural powers and repeatedly tries to uncover the secrets of them.
Eisenheim and Sophie reunite. After a night of fulfilled passion she tells Eisenheim that Leopold intends to announce their engagement. Eisenheim implores Sophie to call it off, but Leopold reacts to her dismissal of him as a husband by committing homicide.
All the above and what ensues next is riveting. It will keep you on the edge of your seat. Not only is the production beautifully mounted and scored, it takes you into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in turn-of-the-century Vienna.
Edward Norton in the title role presents Eisenheim as cold and inaccessible, an imposing figure with the conviction he can accomplish anything he attempts.
Jessica Biel is stunning as the Duchess Sophie. When she is onscreen one drinks in her innate beauty and succumbs to her poignant portrayal of a woman trapped in a seemingly hopeless affair of the heart.
Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl is delicious. Impeccably attired and groomed, he is the epitome of an unshakable criminologist, ever searching for the slightest clues.
Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold radiates superiority, but it is a veneer for his insecurity. We get to see royalty as being just as perplexed about life as we are and no more able to control their circumstances.
An air of mystery hovers over the story, and the film. The actors speak in muted tones and the film is enhanced by Czech Republic locations in and around Prague, which substitutes for Vienna. The entire production is enhanced by the subdued opulence of the period costumes. Added to that are the remarkable magical illusions.
There is a surprise twist at the end, but you’ll have to find out about that by experiencing for yourself this lush and entertaining achievement.
Taylor Pero is an entertainment writer in Kansas City and author of “Always, Lana” and “The Colors of Callas”. He welcomes your comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.