For a second film, writer/director Neil Burger's The Illusionist (2006) is an impressive accomplishment one that other filmmakers just starting out are bound to envy, thanks to its lavish period production, thoughtful script, and quartet of talented leads. Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim, one of the finest illusionists of Europe and the toast of the Vienna stage in 1900. His remarkable feats of prestidigitation draw repeated gasps from sold-out audiences, even impressing the city's Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who hopes to pry the secret of a magical orange tree from Eisenheim. However, the magician's skill does not impress Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a temperamental alcoholic who would rather know how a trick is done than merely enjoy the mystery of it. And as it turns out, Eisenheim isn't very fond of the prince either, who is engaged to his childhood friend Sophie (Jessica Biel), whom he has not seen since their brief romance was shattered by class differences. At Sophie's suggestion, Eisenheim is invited to give a private performance at the prince's home, but the headstrong illusionist uses the occasion to nearly embarrass his host with a "sword and the stone" stunt, gently mocking his claim to the throne. In short order, Eisenheim's performances in Vienna are closed down, and not long after that his plans to run away with Sophie are dashed. However, an unbeaten Eisenheim soon returns to the stage, and this time with an even more seditious performance his ability to raise spirits from the beyond the grave threatens to make him more powerful, feared, and loved among the people than the crown itself.
The genesis of The Illusionist came at the end of Neil Burger's first film, Interview with the Assassin (2002), when he met magician David Blaine and found himself fascinated by the art of bending reality. He also was familiar with a short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser, which he expanded upon for his screenplay. The result is an intricate tale about how a skilled, disciplined artist can broaden the line between perception and reality, both on-stage and off, but also in a very specific context: the class-stratified society of central Europe at the turn of the century, where ruling classes depend on the good will of their subjects, even if their power is derived from nothing more than heredity. Crown Prince Leopold certainly isn't against blind faith in fact, he expects it, but only when it's granted to him, and thus he naturally resents anyone who earns the same level of admiration. Eisenheim and Leopold's feud extends far beyond mere tricks. Theirs is a hearts-and-minds campaign for the people, both hoping to expand their wealth and influence, and both dependent upon one woman whom they cannot share. There are echoes of the sublime The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) to be found here, and Burger enjoys using film processes to enhance his story, in particular with slightly flickering, desaturated color at times to suggest the look of motion pictures at the outset of the 20th century. The location work in Prague and other locations in the Czech Republic is equally sumptuous the city still retains its empirical European charm, while a hunting lodge once owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand serves as Leopold's palace. Perhaps the final "twist" won't be that hard to spot for most folks (at times the script seems to suggest it as one of several outcomes), but it doesn't make the experience any less enjoyable. And the cast is a welcome ensemble, with Edward Norton's notable sang-froid manner, Jessica Biel's old-world charm, and Rufus Sewell's dark, threatening menace. However, Paul Giamatti turns out to be the film's biggest surprise, taking on this role after his breakout turn in Sideways (2004) with a reserved, authoritarian, and yet warmly human portrayal that proves he need not be typecast in sad-sack neurotic roles.
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Fox's DVD release of The Illusionist offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Writer/director Neil Burger offers a thoughtful, wide-ranging commentary, while other extras include the short promotional featurettes "The Making of The Illusionist" and "Jessica Biel on The Illusionist," the theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Fox titles. Keep-case.