The Illusionist (2006)
Directed by: Neil Burger Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Studio: Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Bob Yari Productions Screenwriter: Neil Burger
Adapted from: Short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser
Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
The Illusionist is a film based on a short story in which the screenwriter takes liberties to make the story more robust for the big screen. Meshing the art of illusions with the tired trope of forbidden love and abusive relationships. Those familiar with European history will note a parallel to this story and the events leading to the start of WW1.
Childhood friends Eisenheim (Norton) and Sophie (Biel) are separated by their class differences only to meet again as adults. How serendipitous. He is now an illusionist who pulls in crowds, and she is a Dutches set to marry Crowned Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Prince is a limply developed character who is allegedly a woman beater and murderer. His stance and arrogance are a facade that fools no viewer. Sewell does a good job of making the audience want to rip off his absurd mustache, all things what they are.
Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) is in charge of the authorities and works for Prince Leopold on the side. The Prince often has Uhl remove those who speak out against him or challenge his power, as the Prince neurotically believes as Eisenheim’s goal. Giamatti is a supporting actor in this film and is the most passible for a “normal” person. His role is the glue that ultimately ties all of the four main characters together.
Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Biel) is the rope in the tug-of-war game that inadvertently ensues between Prince Leopold and Eisenheim. Biel’s performance is like everything else she’s done, nothing to write home about. She’s a static filler to move the plot along. A plot device added by director and screenwriter Neil Burger from the original short story this movie is adapted from. Any other actress could have been thrown in, any, and it wouldn’t have made a difference in this film’s case. It’s the script. It’s dry yet smooth. If the story had been more robust, Biel’s portrayal of Sophie would stick out like a nail in a tire. The notion that she still pines for her lost childhood love is absurd. The actress that portrays her younger self invoked more emotion!
Edward Norton is the type of actor who can be dropped into any role, and he makes something out of it. He proves this again as the renowned illusionist, Eisenheim. The character calls for a calm and reserved manner, and that’s precisely what Norton provides. When I said the story was dry, it is, but with Norton’s style as the titular character ruling most of the scenes, it seems purposeful. Allowing the film to move in a way that it’s not overly distracting.
Three main things that grate me about this film are the accents of all the characters, the love story, the viewing.
Actors, by definition, are paid to portray the characters they assume. Why is it such an arduous task to get actors to try for accents of the countries they are set in? Or, cast those with natural ones. Who knew Vinennians sounded so American!
Norton’s Eisenheim conveys more believable emotion towards Biel’s Sophie, and yet it’s still such a stretch to believe them. Since this is the backbone of Burger’s adaptation, it makes this film such a letdown. A few more vastly better-written scenes for these two could have made a huge difference! With a runtime of just under two hours, there is room to expand without making the film feel too long.
This film is from 2006, and I’ve watched plenty of movies before that which show better than this film. Literally, show better. Even the trailer is grainy. This film’s cinematography used sepia tones, blurry corner cropping, and visual vestiges of being filmed in the early 1900s. In 2006 this worked, but fifteen years later, it doesn’t up-convert at all. I own this on BluRay and put it into my 4K player that up-converts everything else, even DVDs, with ease. This movie looked liked crap when I tried to watch it! I opted instead to watch it on Amazon Prime for free. That was a much better viewing experience! Though I despise IMDb’s TV scene cutting skills. There is a time and place to cut and add commercials!
Those three issues aside, watching the story unfold and the illusions that Eisenheim has crafted to astound and beguile his audiences is well prepared and displayed. You will have yourself asking how does he do it? Any of it. For being set in the 1900s and pulling off such visual spectacles, one has to appreciate the genius behind the man that creates them. While Eisenheim the Illusionist entertains others think he’s really in tune with the dark arts. Which is true? What is true, and what is an illusion? This is what you should see this movie for. Not the class-crossed love story but for everything else. See it for what Norton’s character brings to Vienna, and Inspector Uhl tries to solve.
If you like mysteries and drama with a now you see me, now you don’t flavor, you will not be disappointed with The Illusionist as an option for your watchlist. Just make sure you’re seeing the movie is not distracted by grainy or discolored displays to interrupt your viewing experience.
—a pen lady