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DVD Pick: The Illusionist

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The Illusionist DVD Cover Art

The Illusionist DVD Cover Art

© Fox Home Entertainment

Magician vs. Crown Prince in Old Vienna

Set in Vienna circa 1900, The Illusionist (2006) is a slick, entertaining and intricate yarn told by a law enforcement official, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). The inspector finds himself caught up in the conflict between the astonishing stage magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and the ruthless Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) over the beautiful Sophie (Jessica Biel). But Uhl knows the fate of all Austria-Hungary is at stake because Leopold is scheming to become emperor.

The narrative structure of The Illusionist is that of a clever mystery story. For the careful observer, there are many clues along the way that things may not be as they seem. By the end Chief Inspector Uhl has finally figured out what must have happened, or at least he believes he has.

The Illusionist is well-acted and well-crafted. The cinematography, sumptuous sets, period costumes and location shooting in the Czech Republic make the film visually pleasing. However, the movie never pulled me in emotionally.

A Not-So-Romantic Relationship

There's a story thread in the film involving the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) quickly beginning a sexual relationship. This is shorthand indicating we should accept that they have fallen madly in love. The primary function of this thread is to motivate the conflict between the magician and the Crown Prince, who needs to marry the duchess to gain her family's support for his plan to seize control of Hungary. But it's unfortunate that there's no romantic chemistry between Norton and Biel.

However, the focus in The Illusionist is on mystery rather than romance, and overall Jessica Biel is effective in the role of Sophie. She is physically attractive, and although her face does not look like that of a woman in 1900, she adopts a demeanor and manner of speaking that, in the context of the movie, manage to evoke the era.

A Corrupt Policeman Who Finds His Conscience

Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) gives yet another fine performance in The Illusionist, where his portrayal of Chief Inspector Uhl is reminiscent of Claude Rains playing Captain Renault in Casablanca. Uhl has staked his career on doing the Crown Prince's dirty work in hopes he may someday be made Chief of Police or perhaps even Mayor. He is so corrupt he deliberately imprisons the wrong man for murder to protect the prince. But over the course of the movie, Uhl changes, and as the story winds down, he risks his life in an effort to do the right thing.

An Excellent Audio Commentary by the Writer-Director

Listening to the feature-length audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger on the DVD containing The Illusionist turned out for me to be a more rewarding experience than the film itself had been. The movie is lightweight, but the commentary is on the intellectual side.

Burger adapted his movie from Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," and the filmmaker discusses where he changed and added things. The fictional character Crown Prince Leopold was based very loosely on the historical figure of Archduke Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, who in 1889 was found shot dead in the hunting lodge at Mayerling. At least one of the tricks performed by the fictional Eisenheim was based on one made famous by the great 19th-century French magician Robert-Houdin.

Burger also discusses the location shooting in and around Prague. The fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov was used for the scenes of Eisenheim's childhood, and some of the film's ornate interiors were shot at Dobris Castle, just outside Prague. But the most interesting location—the one that contains the hallway filled with antlers and stuffed animals—was Konopiste Castle, which belonged to Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austria-Hungary throne when he was assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I.

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