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The Illusionist (Mark's Take)

01/10/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

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In this film, finds Mark, a mystical and mysterious stage magician, Eisenheim, becomes the rage of Vienna while working out his own personal love triangle. His childhood sweetheart is now engaged to the Crown Prince. The Prince has the power of his station, and Eisenheim seems to have his own mystical powers. This is a captivating and atmospheric tale that will keep the viewer wondering what is real, what illusion.

Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

As the film opens you are on a stage in the city of Vienna in pre-World-War-I Austria. A magician on that stage sits in a concentration that could burn holes in paper. He stares in a silence that the uneasily audience shares. The entire room is in profound concentration. Then at the magician's side he is seemingly joined by the translucent spirit of a woman. As the diaphanous apparition floats at his arm the Chief Inspector of Police recognizes the woman, arises from the audience, and orders that the performance be halted immediately and that the magician be arrested.

The magician (played by Edward Norton) is the mysterious Eisenheim, whose powers have astounded all of Vienna. Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the catspaw of the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), cannot allow anything to happen on this stage that might damage the interests of Prince Leopold. And he has the feeling that the illusionist is dealing in powers that will be dangerous to the Prince and perhaps even to Eisenheim himself. The enigmas of Eisenheim and his tricks have become an obsession with Uhl. This is the spellbinding opening of THE ILLUSIONIST, written and directed by Neil Burger, based on a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser.


From the theater Uhl goes to see Prince Leopold and tells him, and you, of the arrest and the history of Eisenheim. Eisenheim who was born Abramowitz loved a girl above his station. He impressed her with tricks he had learned from a traveling magician. But their romance was not to be because he was a poor boy of low birth. His girlfriend became the Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel) and now both he and the Crown Prince want the same woman. But she is engaged to the Prince and Chief Inspector Uhl, though fascinated with Eisenheim, will protect the Prince.

Millhauser's story is at heart a simple one. One woman is torn between two men: one whose powers are all too well known and one whose powers are unknown and uncanny. The recreation of the Vienna of a century ago is beautiful, though nearly sabotaged by Dick Pope's cinematography that over-uses sepia tone photography and, in the early parts of the film, a blurring of the borders of the frame, probably from Vaseline smeared on the lens. Later in the film this unsubtle and manipulative effect is used a lot less. Another problem is that the visual images on the stage go far beyond what would have been possible with very early 20th Century stagecraft. In a film where the main mystery is whether Eisenheim truly has mastered the arts of true magic or if he is just a clever stage magician, the visual imagery seems to imply strongly the magic is real. The illusions are just too convincing.

I do question whether a magician whose real name is known to be Abramowitz could have escaped having his background become a major issue in anti-Jewish Austro-Hungary. The Prince (who is despicable in many ways) and the Chief Inspector make only a passing reference to the name. Of course, Edward Norton does not look Jewish at all. Most critical attention seems to be going to his acting performance.

He is magnetic, but I would contend that behaving strangely does not require as much acting ability as to appear to be perfectly normal in a part. It is, I would claim, harder to play Victor Frankenstein believably than it is to play his creation. I am more impressed with Paul Giamatti's Chief Inspector Uhl. This is a very different sort of role for Giamatti than those he has been getting. He is polished, urbane, and a member of the establishment. He is a near opposite to his character in SIDEWAYS and in films like PLANET OF THE APES.

Those who enjoyed this film, and there should be a lot, should also try to find Menahem Golan's The Magician Of Lublin (1979), based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel which may well have been much of the inspiration of this film. The Illusionist is a hypnotic film that is an act of stage magic in itself. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper

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