The Illusionist Pulls An Epic Love Story From Thin Air

The Illusionist is a romance classic that shook a monarchy and questioned existence.

“What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” – Harry Houdini

This year, Valentine’s Day follows Friday the 13th and what better movie to celebrate the mixture of bad luck and the magic of romance is there than The Illusionist? The 2006 mystery romance film The Illusionist was written and directed by Neil Burger. It stars Edward Norton and Jessica Biel as childhood lovers separated by class and an evil prince. Norton and Biel approach Rick and Ilsa levels of romance and intrigue in this film. Like Casablanca, The Illusionist sets a star-crossed pair against a growing threat to the world around them. The film was loosely based on “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Steven Millhauser published in the collection The Barnum Museum. Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1997.

Because The Illusionist came out the same year as The Prestige, they are often lumped together, compared and contrasted and people take sides on which is the better magician film. The Prestige is about a duel between magicians, like Millhauser’s story, and it has a stellar surprise performance by David Bowie. The Illusionist pulls a Houdini on a prince whose lobby is lined with severed heads and antlers. But The Illusionist is closer in spirit to The Princess Bride. The best on-screen romances are fairy tales where lovers overcome great odds and terrible obstacles to finally join together, happily ever after, preferably in some Neverland or, as Kurt Vonnegut would call it in Mother Night, a “nation of two.”

The Illusionist is one of the great modern love stories, up there with the classic Rob Reiner film Princess Bride. It shares that quality of a love that will never die even as the corpses seem to pile up under castle windows. Both films celebrate the unseen magical force of love. The couples Buttercup and Westley, in Princess Bride, and Eisenheim and the Dutchess, in The Illusionist, are separated by class and society. Both are lovers and friends since childhood. They are separated. When Westley and Eisenheim come back, changed men who found their fortunes, Sophie and Buttercup are both getting ready to reluctantly marry future kings. While the brilliant Princess Bride goes for laughs, The Illusionist goes for the aortic artery.

The film loosely merges the late 1800’s scandal, the Mayerling Incident, in which the Crown Prince of Austria died, according to the Prime Minister at the time, Count Eduard Taaffe, “due to a rupture of an aneurism of the heart.” He died of a broken heart, how romantic is that? Well it would probably be more so if he didn’t take his lover with him and ultimately lead to World War I.

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Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his teenaged lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were found dead in what was believed an apparent suicide in the Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in the woods of Vienna on Jan. 30, 1889. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth. He was heir to the throne of the Habsburg Empire. The Emperor wanted Rudolf to break it off with his mistress, the daughter of diplomat Baron Albin Vetsera.

At first it was believed that Baroness Mary poisoned Rudolf with strychnine, but it was later uncovered that the Crown Prince shot his mistress and, several hours later, himself, in a suicide pact. Rudolf’s death left the succession of the Habsburg Empire in question, splitting the Austrian and the Hungarian factions of the empire and ultimately led to World War.

“I read everything I could about the Hapsburgs, about the Secessionist movement, and about the magic from that time – both the illusions themselves and the social world of the magicians.  Most of the tricks are based on real illusions and the characters I invented are also based on real people.  I wanted it all to be as believable and honest as possible, all the more so since the story examines the idea of how we perceive truth and illusion – and blurs the boundary between those two concepts.  If you’re going to exaggerate certain elements, to have it be dreamlike or surreal or uncanny, you have to make sure that the rest of it has a rock solid foundation in the period,” Director Burger said in the production notes.

But you didn’t come here for a history lesson.

The Illusionist takes place in Vienna in 1900.  The renowned spiritualist and magician Eisenheim takes down a monarchy from the dangerous Crown Prince Leopold after the death of the woman he loves. Eisenheim, played by Edward Norton, and the Dutchess, were barred from ever seeing one another as children, but they always find a way to be together.

Eisenheim the Illusionist, son of a cabinetmaker, travels the world looking for a good mystery and the only one he can’t solve is why his heart could never let go of his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen. Eisenheim returns to Vienna a successful stage magician while Sophie is on her way to marrying Crown Prince Leopold.

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Leopold is played by Rufus Sewell who, along with Paul Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Uhl, almost steals the film outright. Almost, because the film is also an acting geek’s dream. All the performances are stellar. Early on, Sewell wears his cruel nature like a flower in his lapel, it is subtle, just an accessory. He barely displays the histrionics of his violent nature, but never lets the audience forget that this is a man who threw one of his lovers out a window to cover the bruises from his beatings. Every look is a veiled threat. Every question is a dare. Every delay, even a slight pause, is scrutinized for a hint of treachery.

It is a relief when Sewell finally does blow up with the line “It has everything to do with me.” Everything finally bubbles to the surface and all that barely repressed rage allows the audience to break from him completely while understanding the implosive depth of his entitled pain. He then spirals inwardly into an abyss of megalomaniacal maelstrom. It doesn’t help that he’s right. He didn’t do the murder, but every protest will only prove him as paranoid as the people under him. He is being played. His chief of police believes a con artist gypsy son of a cabinetmaker wizard over him, the crown prince on his way to head of state through a coup d’état. It’s enough to drive someone mad, but he never even gets that satisfaction.

When The Illusionist first came out I considered Ed Norton to be the best actor of his age group, bar none. He conned Richard Gere with split personalities in Primal Fear; made a case for pornography as social commentary in The People Versus Larry Flint and went to a societal hell and back shirtless in American History X. But he hadn’t been given the chance to play a true romantic lead. Norton is magnetic, and not just in the love scenes. His charisma is palpable on the streets of Vienna as he gives out coins to the local beggar boys. He fully captures the magnetism of the inward concentration of a magician, black, white or sepia. But it’s when he pins Jessica Biel up against the wall that the audience sees what she’s been missing.

Not many people would have thought at the time that Jessica Biel could give such a performance. She had been, up to that time, a teen model and TV actress, appearing in 7th Heaven and the action movies Blade: Trinity and Stealth. As Sophie von Teschen, Biel is all heat under her Victorian petticoats, but she isn’t blinded by it. She is intelligent, independent and knows when she’s unhappy, and Leopold is beginning to scare her.

Harry Houdini, whose legend traverses the magical and spirtual world, one said “Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.” Magicians have been vilified for ages. Prestidigitators historically flirted with charges of demonic powers and some of their best sleight of hand was performed to keep themselves from a noose. I’m not saying that the first person who pulled a penny from a kid’s ear was burned as a witch, but it must have crossed more than one mind. The movie opensi n Vienna, Austria-Hungary, in 1889, with Eisenheim being arrested for necromancy and passing it off as stage magic by Chief Inspector Walter Uhl of the Vienna Police. We see the film through Uhl’s eyes, as he tells the story of the famed magician to the crown prince. To the cop’s keen eye, it appears Sophie and Eisenheim meet when she comes down from the royal box to be entranced and transformed. Sensing a trifle going on with the Crown Prince’s intended, who promises him a mayoralty when he offs his old man, Uhl tries to throw water on the couple.

Being a huge Robert Crumb fan, I discovered Paul Giamatti in American Splendor and have tried not to miss a performance since. He brings the spirit of Inspector Renault to the film. Giamatti is certainly as versatile as the legendary actor, Claude Rain, and when he declares that he isn’t quite as corrupt as it may appear, he bridges a gap to the romantic classic Casablanca.

There are other links to Casablanca. Eddie Marsan as Josef Fischer, Eisenheim’s manager, is playing Dooley Wilson’s Sam. He smells money like Sam smells trouble, wait, who’s got trouble? The murder mystery that crops up 57 minutes into The Illusionist is not unlike the subterfuge that underlies the second half of Casablanca. Who is going to use the Letters of Transit? The Illusionist sets up an illusion, the ultimate escape trick.

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Puffing on his Sherlock Holmes pipe and enjoying the mystery as much as any performance, even when he’s beaten, Uhl is likable and flawed. He’s ambitious and will stomp on any civil right, or take the name of any dissident to get ahead, but he’s the son of a butcher. He’s uncomfortable, out of his depth, out of his class and always looking to solve another puzzle. The last thing he wants is to have the puzzles taken away by putting away his benefactor, the prince.

The Crown Prince Leopold has a reputation for progressive sympathies, which he backs up by brutalizing his subjects and his lovers. The Crown Prince is also hiding his coup d’etat against his old man, the Emperor Franz Joseph I. Sophie is a political tool in his scheme because she plays well on the Hungarian stump tours. Long before she’s wearing the red of his slap mark as blush, Sophie knows she could play just as well as a dead fiancé.

But it is the magician who takes the stage. Leopold would never be suspected in Sophie’s demise because the Mayerling hunting lodge is out of the jurisdiction of local law. When Eisenheim tells Uhl that Sophie was going to dump the Crown Prince for him, the chief inspector is under orders to ignore it. The stage craft of the tight-lipped Asian artisans projects Eisenheim’s accusations to the nation as an epic stage play soap opera.

This is before soap was sold on radio or TV. Eisenheim, whose shows already approach art, brings the love story to the stage in the midst of the necromantic fantasia and growing spiritual revolution. His shows become dark romantic poetry. The shows don’t just make the audience question everything they‘ve taken for granted spiritually, they are ripe to question earthly powers. When Leopold goes undercover and Sophie says that someone in the theater murdered her, he knows he is damned by the romance of a lost locket. While all eyes are on Eisenheim, he disappears in plain sight, leaving nothing behind but evidence.

Any good magician, or fan, knows that the best illusions happen while the attention is held elsewhere. Eisenheim keeps the focus on himself. He is the first person to reach Sophie. He is the first person to lay suspicion on the crown prince. His grief is so large it cannot be contained in the earthly plane. It spans the spiritual worlds. He isn’t bringing Sophie back to cast aspersions on the royal family, he just wants to be with her. He just misses her. He can barely bring himself to speak, like Courage the Cowardly Dog after the episode “The Great Fusilli,” the horror is beyond words.

Uhl doesn’t see the sleight of hand he knew was happening right in front of him. He finds every clue the magician fed him and informs Leopold that he told the Emperor and the General Staff about the coup. The Crown Prince knows he’s innocent but is so befuddled by how to explain it his head explodes right in the face of Imperial Guard of the Austro-Hungarian Army. In payment for his collusion, after-the-fact, Eisenheim gives Uhl, the amateur magician a folio explaining the orange tree trick, which is done mechanically, like many of the effects in the film, as opposed to CGI.

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The score by Philip Glass is probably the warmest music he’s ever composed. Dick Pope, the cinematographer, tints and sometimes drenches the screen in sepia. Besides the romantic haze, the images recall the earliest, yellowing moving pictures. He even gives them a strobe effect, like cells streaming across a nickelodeon. The scene where the young Eisenheim, played by Aaron Johnson, meets the traveling magician in the woods occupies a magical place outside the film where Eisenheim and Sophie can escape.

I have a problem with the accents. Sorry, but if they’re in Vienna and from Vienna, they wouldn’t have accents. They would only have accents if they were speaking in another language in a foreign country. The neither-here-nor-there vaguely European and not quite English voices are completely unnecessary.

The Illusionist is a great late date pic for Valentine’s Day. It is better with the light down low. It offers suspense on a mystery level on the backdrop of a necromancer’s dream of the afterlife, enough excuses to huddle close in conversation or better. The film is a personal love story played out on an epic scale. These two people want each other so much it shakes up a dynasty on earth, questions existence beyond and sparks a spiritual revolution. The Illusionist evokes romance classics while firmly establishing itself as original. It is a modern romance classic.


5 out of 5