The Illusionist

The Illusionist
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Neil Burger (based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser)
Stars: Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Paul Giamatti (Chief Inspector Uhl), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Josef Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Johnson (Young Eisenheim), Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S. / Czech Republic
The Illusionist
The IllusionistLike a great stage trick, The Illusionist casts an effective spell, drawing you into its gold-toned world of spiritualism and sleight-of-hand, where questions about what is real and what is trickery melt into each other like dissolving puffs of smoke. Director Neil Burger, who wrote the script from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser, knows the value of a good illusion; his directorial debut, Interview With the Assassin (2002), was a completely convincing faux documentary about the supposed real killer of John F. Kennedy.

There is something entrancing about The Illusionist, but something slightly infuriating, as well, because it insists on tacking on a last-minute coda that explains (sort of) everything that we didn't see originally, essentially revealing the proverbial card up the sleeve. To be fair, the ending works in its own way, but it's also somewhat disappointing because it robs the film of its more effective supernatural suggestiveness. “Nothing is what it seems,” goes the film's tagline, but it eventually shows that everything can be explained.

The story takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna, which was a hotbed of both mystery (illusionists were often followed like religious leaders) and science (this was, after all, the time and place that gave birth to Sigmund Freud). Edward Norton stars as a popular illusionist named Eisenheim, who appears to be able to slow down time, cause an orange tree to grow rapidly from a pot, and produce a painting of the Emperor without a paintbrush ever touching the canvas. The story is narrated by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an amateur magician who is fascinated by Eisenheim's feats, yet is put in the uncomfortable position of having to shut him down when he insults the boorish Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

There is more, though. Leopold is engaged to marry Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess from a powerful family whom Eisenheim knew when they were adolescents. In fact, they tried to run away together, but were forcibly separated because she came from an upper-class clan and he was the son of a poor cabinetmaker. When they are reunited, their disrupted adolescent affections are reignited even though Leopold will never allow Sophie to leave him. Thus is born a dangerous love triangle, with Uhl, himself the son of a butcher with clear aspirations to class mobility, caught in the middle and forced to do what he knows is wrong. Even though Eisenheim is the film's protagonist, Uhl is its moral conscience, and no one conveys inner turmoil better than Paul Giamatti.

Despite some of its narrative shortcomings, The Illusionist is never anything less than gorgeous to behold. The cinematography by Dick Pope (a favorite of British auteur Mike Leigh) is delicate and nearly translucent at times, conveying a slightly otherworldly sense that always keeps the film's rational/spiritual dichotomy in sharp focus. When Eisenheim begins to summon spirits from the dead, it is in no way clear whether it is a con or the real deal; his audience eats it up, but others are doubtful.

This leads to some potential problems in the third act, as Uhl begins to switch allegiance from Leopold to Eisenheim in his investigation of a serious misdeed. Leopold insists that it is all just one of Eisenheim's tricks, but Norton conveys such pain and anguish as the tortured illusionist that we never for a moment doubt his sincerity, even as he remains enigmatic as to his supernatural abilities. The film's key line of dialogue comes from Uhl when he suggests that there can be truth even in a trick. This works to both reify the art of the illusion and to justify its Eisenheim's ultimate master plan, which some may have a hard time swallowing once it's revealed in all its details.

The Illusionist DVD
The Illusionist is available in both widescreen and full-screen editions.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Subtitles English, Spanish, French
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Neil Burger
  • “The Making of The Illusionist” featurette
  • “Jessica Biel on The Illusionist” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Distributor20th Century Fox
    Release DateJanuary 25, 2007

    The Illusionist is nothing if not a gorgeous film to watch, and the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer on this disc does the imagery full justice. The film is filled primarily with dark, sepia-toned images. There are rarely any bright colors, but rather a palette of browns, grays, golds, and earth tones. Such films always risk looking murky on home video, but the excellent transfer keeps the picture clean and well-defined, despite the slightly soft-focus nature of the photography.

    The primary beneficiary of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is Philip Glass’s musical score, which is given all the space and richness it needs. The surround channels are used now and again for sound effects and ambient noise, but the majority of the soundtrack is maintained on the front soundstage with some stereo imaging. The scenes in the crowded theaters do a nice job of creating a sense of being surrounded by spectators.

    The supplements on this disc are a bit light. The screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Neil Burger is definitely worth a listen. He discusses everything from how he adapted the short story, to his approach to actor’s accents, to how special effects were employed (I was surprised to learn that most of the orange tree trick was done mechanically, rather than with CGI). Unfortunately, the rest of the supplements are worthless. There are two featurettes, but they are both little more than PR fluff pieces with no real insight. “The Making of The Illusionist” (4 min.) has a fundamentally misleading title because it doesn’t discuss at all how the film was made; rather, it features the four primary actors talking about the plot and their characters. “Jessica Biel on The Illustionist,” which runs only a minute and half, repeats 90% of Biel’s interview from the previous featurette. Outside of that, the only supplement is the film’s original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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