“The Illusionist” is undeniably one of 2006’s best films. It takes place in 1900 Vienna where a magician named Eisenheim the Illusionist has captured the hearts and minds of his audience with incredible feats of legerdemain. Many believe that he must in league with either God or the devil because his so called “tricks” are not of the typical caliber of most magicians of that age. Many want to protect him, while others want him destroyed.
The story flashes back to when young Edward (Eisenheim’s real name) first meets a traveling magician. He instantly becomes enthralled with magic and spends every free moment practicing it. His intensity and dedication captures the heart of Sophie, a girl from an aristocratic family. They become fast friends and eventually something more. Edward gives her a magical necklace, which he asks her to keep close to her heart. One night, as they meet, Sophie is literally pulled from Edward’s arms. He is warned that if he ever sees her again, he will be put in jail along with the rest of his family. Defeated, lonely, and broken hearted, Edward leaves Vienna and is not seen for 15 years. When he does finally return it is in the role of Eisenheim the Illusionist.
The popularity of Eisenheim’s act quickly captures the attention of Crown Prince Leopold who attends one of his shows. When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience for a trick, the prince offers the services of his companion, the Duchess von Teschen. As soon as she steps on the stage, Eisenheim realizes that it is his long lost love, Sophie. However, he is uncertain whether or not she recognizes him so he pretends that he doesn’t recognize her either. They complete the act and she departs without any exchange of familiarity.
At first the prince is enthralled with the illusionist. He even invites him to the palace to perform. But the show does not go as expected when Eisenheim makes it perfectly clear that he has to use for the man. The prince, in turn, orders Chief Inspector Uhl to close down the magician’s show. Uhl, who considers himself somewhat of an amateur magician, is reluctant to do so without good cause. But Edward and Sophie give the inspector something to work with when they begin to meet in secret. Since everyone is aware that Sophie has been chosen to become the princess, her relationship with the magician cannot continue.
Love, however, can never be denied and Edward and Sophie’s love was written long ago. They make plans to run away together. She informs the prince of her intentions and he warns her that she must not carry them out. As you might guess, the next day Sophie is discovered dead. With her gone, Edward leaves the city once again broken hearted. However, he eventually returns with a whole new act. Now it seems that he can actually conjure up the dead and he brings Sophie back in front of the audience who questions the so-called ghost as to who killed her and how.
With the inspector and the prince determined to destroy him, it seems unwise for Eisenheim to continue his show but he does. As a result, he is finally arrested but when the inspector reaches out to take him into custody, the magician disappears; appearing to join his beloved Sophie in the netherworld.
Is Edward really gone? Is Sophie really dead? Who is responsible for Sophie’s death? These questions continue to haunt the inspector until he finally finds Sophie’s necklace in the prince’s stables along with loose jewels that, as it turns out, are from the prince’s sword. When the inspector confronts the prince, in panic and shame, he takes desperate action by pulling a gun on the inspector. Does he kill him? Did the prince kill Sophie? These are questions left unanswered until the ending scenes of the movie.
This film is utterly fascinating on so many different levels. You will likely find yourself wishing it could continue much longer than it does. Edward Norton as Edward/Eisenheim is nothing short of spectacular. He never skips a beat in his performance, delivering every word, every nuance, and every look with measured expertise. Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl is also outstanding. I often wonder how we missed his acting brilliance for so long. But the real surprise for me was the ethereal performance of Jessica Biel as the beautiful Sophie. There is certainly no denying this star’s beauty and most people recognized her acting ability from her long-term role on television’s “7th Heaven.” However, this particular part seems tailored made for Biel. She effortlessly commands every scene she is in and holds the audience’s attention in such a way that you might not notice with whom she is sharing the screen.
The screenplay, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is based on the short story of Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser. It is a complex tale filled with mystery and awe. With the skillful direction of Neil Burder and Bob Yari, combined with the compelling score composed by minimalist musician Philip Glass and conducted by Michael Reisman and Dick Pope’s stunning cinema photography, “The Illusionist” is nothing short of brilliant. In my rating, it is five out of five stars. I can find no fault with this film.
This is a 20th Century Fox production in conjunction with Yari Film Group, Bob Yari Productions, and Koppelman-Levien/Michael London Productions in association with Contagious Entertainment. It is one hour and 73 minutes in length and carries a PG-13 rating.