The Illusionist (2006) Review

The Illusionist (2006) Director: Neil Burger

“Everything you have seen is an illusion”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by American writer Steven Millhauser and released around the same time as Christopher Nolan’s masterful The Prestige, The Illusionist is a wonderful romance of magic and intrigue. At its root The Illusionist is a political movie –it explores the attempted coup d’état by the Crown Prince Leopold against the ruling Hapsburg family, only for it to fail and for the Crown Prince to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances (known as the Mayerling incident). I enjoy a good movie which employs the art of magic as a metaphor for the cinematic craft.

The plot for this film plays out like a fairy tale. In Vienna, Edward Norton portrays a popular magician, Herr Eisenheim, who is suddenly reunited with his childhood lover, Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), however she is already reluctantly betrothed to the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). After a series of escalating situations in which the Crown Prince finds Eisenhem to be a threat to his own rule (note: Eisenheim unironically rhymes with “Eisenstein”), Sophie is tragically found dead. The murder is investigated by Vienna Chief of Police Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Eisenheim begins a series of occult-like performances in which he appears to summon the spirits of the dead, but in the film’s ultimate twist we learn that Eisenheim has actually been casting an elaborate illusion over us the whole time. The spirits have been mere phantasmagorie created by staged lighting in order to allow for the escape of Eisenheim and Sophie together. The Crown Prince kills himself just as the royal guard closes in on him –only in the end does Inspector Uhl realize that he has been played by a superior illusionist.

I remember working at a movie theater at the time when The Illusionist was released. I thought this was an enjoyable movie with an amusing twist at the end and a captivating revisionist history about the Mayerling Incident, however The Illusionist falls short of the majesty of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which begs for comparison.

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