×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Illusionist

A bizarre story of intrigue, magic and murder in turn-of-the-century Vienna casts a considerable spell in "The Illusionist." Impeccably crafted second feature from Neil Burger will be tricky to position commercially, since it will strike some arthouse types as conventional, and may prove too aristocratically rarefied for the general modern public.

With:
Eisenheim - Edward Norton Inspector Uhl - Paul Giamatti Sophie - Jessica Biel Crown Prince Leopold - Rufus Sewell Josef Fischer - Edward Marsan Jurka - Jake Wood Willigut - Tom Fisher Doctor/Old Man - Karl Johnson Young Eisenheim - Aaron Johnson Young Sophie - Eleanor Tomlinson

A correction was made to this review on Jan. 26, 2006.

A bizarre story of intrigue, magic and murder in turn-of-the-century Vienna casts a considerable spell in “The Illusionist.” Impeccably crafted second feature from writer-director Neil Burger (2002’s “Interview With the Assassin”) will be tricky to position commercially, since it will strike some arthouse types as pulpy and conventional, and may prove too aristocratically rarefied for the general modern public. But an enterprising distrib could locate an appreciative audience for the mesmerizing aspects of this classy and well-acted period melodrama.

Adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser (winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer”), the yarn centers on a stage magician whose powers are so extraordinary they eventually threaten to subvert the power structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Events may require a considerable suspension of disbelief, and some of the tricks could never have been pulled off before a live audience, but the conviction of Burger and his skilled cast, along with the propulsive waves of Philip Glass’ score and the trappings of Viennese splendor, circa 1900, provide a persuasive argument in favor of going along for the ride.

A brief prologue shows the celebrated illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) being arrested by Vienna police on stage before an outraged audience, as Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) inquires if there isn’t some charge that can be pinned on him. A brief flashback illustrates the adolescent first love between Eisenheim and the lovely, upper-class Sophie and how, once their relationship was forbidden, the young man left Austria to explore the world.

Fifteen years later, Eisenheim is making his name to the extent that the Crown Prince attends his show in the company of his presumed fiancee, the very same Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Leopold offers up Sophie when Eisenheim requests a volunteer from the audience who is not afraid of death.

Asked by the prince what trick he may perform at a subsequent command performance, Eisenheim begins his persistent assault on his royal rival by impudently responding, “Perhaps I’ll make you disappear.” When the stunt he does perform further insults Leopold, the prince demands the magician’s show be shut down.

Caught between the two men is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an urbane fellow who owes his rise to Leopold and must do his bidding. Intrigued as he is by the gifted Eisenheim, he warns the enigmatic performer, whose secrets he repeatedly tries to uncover, how easily disposable both of them are.

But nothing can prevent Eisenheim from reuniting with Sophie, who after a night together informs her lover that Leopold intends to announce their engagement. Eisenheim convinces Sophie to call it off, but Leopold, tragically, isn’t the sort to take rejection gracefully.

Pic’s second half hinges on the further evolution of Eisenheim into an extraordinary conjurer, one who can make “ghosts” of real people appear and speak onstage. He becomes such a people’s hero that he is suspected of fomenting a “spiritual republic,” and so bedevils Leopold that the latter assumes a disguise to attend a performance.

Collision of the two men presents the all-too-knowing Uhl with a crisis of conscience that ultimately leads to a resolution both far-fetched and not at all out of line with what the illusionist’s powers have led one to accept.

Title character is deliberately presented as remote and unknowable. His powers, and the intellect that enables them, seem superhuman, but he is driven above all by a lost love. Working within these strictures, Norton creates a commanding figure, one who would never attempt anything he thought he couldn’t accomplish.

Fastidiously groomed in an unaccustomed period and foreign part, Giamatti is a delight in the Claude Rains role of an epicurean of crime, secrets and social mores. Handily employing a refined English accent where the others lay on a light Austrian veneer, Biel is entirely stunning enough to fight to the death over, and Sewell is credibly arrogant and cruel as the heir apparent. Actors across the board speak in civilized, hushed tones, which furthers the mysterious mood.

Production benefits greatly from the glorious Prague locations that stand in for Vienna, as cinematographer Dick Pope captures them, along with Ondrej Nekvasil’s production designs and Ngila Dickson’s costumes, with subdued richness.

The Illusionist

Production: A Bob Yari Prods. presentation of a Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Michael London/Koppelman Levien production in association with Contagious Entertainment. (International sales: Yari Film Group, Los Angeles.) Produced by London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Yari, Cathy Schulman. Executive producers, Jane Garnett, Tom Nunan, Ted Liebowitz, Joey Horvitz. Co-producers, Tom Karnowski, Matthew Stillman, David Minkowski. Directed, written by Neil Burger, based on the short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Dick Pope; editor, Naomi Geraghty; music, Philip Glass; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; art directors, Vlasta Svobodova, Stefan Kovacik; set decorator, Petra Habova; costume designer, Ngila Dickson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Petr Forejt; supervising sound editor, J. Paul Huntsman; sound designer, Michael Babcock; special effects, Vulcan Effects; special effects supervisor, Roman Tudzaroff; visual effects, Universal Production Partners; visual effects supervisor, Viktor Muller; technical advisers for magic, Ricky Jay, Michael Weber; assistant directors, Kieron Phipps, Jan Mensik; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 110 MIN.

With: Eisenheim - Edward Norton Inspector Uhl - Paul Giamatti Sophie - Jessica Biel Crown Prince Leopold - Rufus Sewell Josef Fischer - Edward Marsan Jurka - Jake Wood Willigut - Tom Fisher Doctor/Old Man - Karl Johnson Young Eisenheim - Aaron Johnson Young Sophie - Eleanor Tomlinson

More Film

  • Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at DuArt

    Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at New York's DuArt Film Labs, Dies at 88

    Robert Smith, a longtime executive with New York’s DuArt Film Labs, died Jan. 11 in Montvale, N.J. He was 88. Smith spent some 62 years with DuArt, the film processing and post-production facility founded in 1922 in the penthouse of an automobile garage in Midtown. Smith rose to president of DuArt before retiring in 2015. [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]

  • 'Ghostbusters': First Look at Jason Reitman's

    Watch the First Teaser for Jason Reitman's 'Ghostbusters' Sequel

    If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, it’s time to watch a teaser for Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” forthcoming film. Sony Pictures released a first look at the upcoming movie, a sequel to the 1984 classic. The footage shows a glimpse of the memorable station wagon Ecto-1. The studio announced on Tuesday that the wheels are [...]

  • Anne Hathaway

    Anne Hathaway to Star in Robert Zemeckis' 'The Witches' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Anne Hathaway has closed a deal to star as the Grand High Witch in Robert Zemeckis and Warner Bros.’ “The Witches” adaptation. Variety first reported that Hathaway was holding the offer for both that and “Sesame Street,” and at the time, scheduling for both films were holding up dealmaking. With those issues settled, Hathaway is [...]

  • Film Ratings Overhauled in the U.K.,

    Film Ratings Overhauled in the U.K. With Tougher Restrictions on Sexual Content

    The body that oversees film ratings in the U.K. is tightening its age restrictions and giving movies with certain types of sexual content older age ratings. The British Board of Film Classification said the changes were in response to public demand after a consultation that took in the views of over 10,000 people in the [...]

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame

    'Hunchback of Notre Dame' Live-Action Reboot in the Works at Disney

    Disney is in early development on a live-action “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” movie, based on Disney’s animated film and Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Playwright David Henry Hwang is attached to write the script, with Mandeville Films and Josh Gad set to produce. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz will pen the music. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content