Under the Radar: Genre Movies You May Have Missed — The Illusionist

Edward Norton and Jessica Biel star in The Illusionist.

The fall of 2006 was a great time if you were into magicians. No, not David Copperfield or Gob Bluth—I'm talking more about the Harry Houdini class of conjurer. Most will remember The Prestige, which starred Batman, Wolverine, Black Widow, and Ziggy Stardust himself as scientific genius Nikola Tesla. No surprise that's the one everyone remembers, with that cast and such a big budget for splashy special effects.

In comparison, The Illusionist may seem like the poor country cousin. It doesn't have quite the same amount of star power—though Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell are all incredible, award-winning actors, they aren't quite as beefcake-y as Christian Bale or Hugh Jackman—and it's definitely not as flashy with its magic sequences.

But in terms of story, emotional resonance, characters, and—well, everything—The Illusionist is by far the superior film. Where The Prestige is all showy pyrotechnics, The Illusionist is positively lyrical. With its warm sepia tones and blurred edges, it feels like a faded photograph lit by candlelight.

The plot is more satisfying, the characters more intriguing. There's a substance and heart to it that the better-known film lacks. And, unlike The Prestige, The Illusionist has the air of a great fairy tale and a far more satisfying climactic reveal.

Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) is a mysterious figure whose spectacular show has taken Vienna by storm. Even the Crown Prince himself (Rufus Sewell) is intrigued and seeks the Illusionist out for a command performance. Eisenheim's manager (Eddie Marsan) is thrilled by such publicity; but things get complicated when the Prince's fiancée Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel), realizes Eisenheim is none other than her long-lost childhood sweetheart.

What unfolds is a love story, a mystery, and a meditation on life, death, and the afterlife. Is Eisenheim truly capable of miracles? Has he actually discovered a way to contact spirits? Or is everything an elaborate hoax, a set-up to drive a man mad and convince Vienna's chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) that a murderer has escaped justice? Just what is real and what is illusion?

It's a rare find: a film that plays with out-of-order storytelling in a way that keeps you guessing without ever coming across as heavy-handed. We begin at the ending and slowly learn how Eisenheim came to be sitting on a dark stage beside a hazy spirit; why Chief Inspector Uhl is so ready to arrest him in front of a rioting crowd. The fact that Uhl is our narrator also means we're never fully in on the game—how can we be certain we're being shown the truth when not even our narrator is privy to everything?

There's a dreamy quality to every scene. Ladies' cheeks are perfectly rosy, curls are artistically tousled and beards exactingly trimmed. Everything is cast with a soft glow and colors are muted into a golden sepia-scale. It's a film that calls to mind daguerreotypes and silent cinema, for all that it's in color with plenty of dialogue.

The beautiful music from master composer Philip Glass embodies the time and setting, full of violins, cellos, and subtle piano riffs. You can practically smell the cigar smoke and feel the wool jackets.

And the performances are superb. Edward Norton may have a reputation as a temperamental guy to work with, but his skill as an actor is undeniable. His Eisenheim is enigmatic: obviously the smartest guy in the room, but also troubled and melancholy. His pain is visceral in key scenes and his determination unquestioned, even if his motivations are sometimes unclear.

Rufus Sweell as Crown Prince Leopold.

Rufus Sewell has made a very successful career in America playing the dark and brooding baddie; his Crown Prince Leopold is another cut from that cloth. Unpredictable and prone to drunken fits, he carries an air of entitled violence and ambition about him that provides tense exchanges and renders him a very real threat. A prince he may be, but that doesn't change the fact that he's an abusive lout.

I'm not often impressed by Jessica Biel, but she does an admirable job here as the spirited and strong-willed Sophie. This is definitely one of the best performances she's ever given. And Paul Giamatti is always a delight to watch. His Chief Inspector Uhl is committed to uncovering the truth even if it costs him his livelihood, and refuses to accept pat answers when he knows there's more to the mystery. It doesn't hurt that he completely owns the turn-of-the-century Austrian look, either. There are some actors who are just born to play historical roles: few can rock a beard and sideburns quite like Giamatti.

I often rate and recommend films based on how well they stand up after repeated viewings. If something doesn't resonate with me after the second or third time, I don't considerate it worthy of joining my collection. The fact that I saw The Illusionist three times in theaters despite its limited release, then promptly bought it on DVD, should be testament enough to its quality.

In fact, this is a movie that actually improves upon rewatch. There are so many details that it's impossible to fully appreciate it after only one viewing. Just as with all magic tricks, it needs to be repeated once you've puzzled out how it was done, just so you can follow the wires behind the butterflies.

Although, sometimes, there really aren't any wires. Isn't it best when it's up to the audience to decide what is real — and what is only illusion?

If you like: Harry Houdini and the golden age of magic; historical dramas with gorgeous cinematography.

Why you should watch it: It's a beautiful, poignant little mystery that'll stick with you long after the credits roll, just as the most evocative dreams do.

Favorite moment(s): Eisenheim's stunning first performance in Vienna and his finale.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.


  1. Julie B.

    I had the same reaction: After seeing both films, I thought The Illusionist was the better of the two.

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