Director: Neil Burger
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is the 200th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. No, unlike the 100th episode of a TV series, I’m not going to be set for life with some lucrative syndication deal, nor am I likely to win a car for being the first blogger with 200 posts on this particular day of the month. It’s simply a way of marking what I and my contributors have accomplished in the way of productivity and especially, how many bloody movies I’ve seen since December 2005 that I have found inspirational enough to write about. Looking back on such films as Make Way for Tomorrow, Habit, Sadie Thompson, and The Call of Cthulhu, to name but a tiny few, I’d have to say I’ve been a lucky film geek indeed.
Believe it or not, I have thought a lot about what film I’d take up for my 200th post. There are so many classics still waiting for me to see and write about, so many directors, stars, and screenwriters who deserve more of a spotlight than they’ve gotten. Ultimately, though, I think I’ve known all along which film would take this “honored” place—The Illusionist, the last film my mother ever saw in a movie theatre, one I was privileged to choose and take her to see.
My mother, who died last November, is the first and greatest inspiration for my love of film. She would regale me and my brother with stories of entire Saturdays spent at the movies, eating the lunch her mother would pack for her while feasting her eyes on serials like Buck Rogers, newsreels, cartoons, and, of course, the feature film. Sometimes she’d take dishes home when the theatre was handing them out as a promotion. She was a big fan of musicals—of Judy Garland, Fred and Ginger, Der Bingle. Of course, she also loved the women’s films like Mildred Pierce and Mrs. Miniver. One afternoon, she and I shared a box of Kleenex as we sobbed our way through Madame X.
As I became a more serious film buff, I began taking her to see foreign-language films. She especially loved The King of Masks, a charming film from China, and soon she wanted to see all the foreign films she could. She accompanied me to Ebertfest several years in a row, enjoying some of the offerings very much and sitting patiently through some of the more experimental films I wanted to see. Mom was a good sport, and she liked to be out among people, sharing the experience of watching a movie.
For a brief period of time after her cancer treatments ended, Mom regained a bit of strength and energy. She didn’t go out much, but whenever she did, it was a joyful event. That’s why The Illusionist holds a very special place in my heart. This tale of a 19th century master magician pitted against a police chief in the pocket of a ruthless monarch seemed just the right mix of costume drama, romance, intrigue, and visual spectacle to delight Mom. We went with the hubby to a cineplex five minutes from our home; Mom picked up the tab.
The film opens on the friendship of young Sophie von Teschan (Eleanor Tomlinson), an aristocrat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Eduard Abramowitz (Aaron Johnson), the son of a cabinet-maker. The young couple fancy themselves in love. Eduard, using his cabinet-making skills and ingenuity at creating trick devices, carves a locket with hidden compartments for Sophie. However, the unsuitability of a commoner as a suitor for Sophie is obvious to her family—though not to her and Eduard—and she is shipped out of the country to a finishing school.
Years pass, and Vienna is all abuzz about the magnificent tricks of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a renowned magician who has been making a name for himself throughout Europe. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) consider his show to be exceedingly clever—Uhl is particularly fascinated with Eisenheim’s growing of a small orange tree on stage—but certainly not magic. Leopold charges Uhl with helping him to discover Eisenheim’s secrets. They go to a performance to observe him more closely; the Duchess Sophie von Teschan (Jessica Biel) accompanies them. When Eisenheim calls for a volunteer from the audience for a trick, Leopold urges Sophie to go, hoping she will be able to tell him what happened to her afterward. Eisenheim—in reality her long-lost love Eduard Abramowitz—recognizes Sophie immediately. He captures her image in a mirror and makes it move independently, in another triumphal performance; she can offer nothing of his secrets to Leopold.
The next day, on the prince’s orders, Uhl goes to Eisenheim’s workshop to invite him to perform for Leopold and his guests at the palace. He confesses a fascination with Eisenheim’s abilities, and Eisenheim teaches him a very simple trick. When Eisenheim learns Sophie will be present at the palace—though dismayed to learn she is engaged to Leopold—he agrees to come. When Sophie encounters Eisenheim again, she greets him as her old friend, recognizing himbelatedly after the show.
Leopold watches Eisenheim’s tricks carefully, skeptical of a floating ball stunt. He asks Eisenheim to do something more basic. With this, Eisenheim asks for Leopold’s jewel-encrusted sword. He balances the sword on its tip and challenges members of the audience to lift it, like Arthur removing Excalibur from the stone. None can do so. When Leopold steps up, Eisenheim does not release the sword immediately, vexing the prince and bringing down a vendetta to have his show closed down.
In the meantime, Sophie and Eisenheim renew their romance. He begs her to come away with him, but she says Leopold would never let her go and would hunt them down and kill them eventually. Nonetheless, she determines not to marry the prince. She rides alone to the palace one evening and confronts Leopold with this news. He slaps her. She goes out to the stable to ride off, and he follows. The next image we see is of Sophie slumped forward on her horse as it gallops through the palace gates.
When Sophie’s horse is found with a bloodstain on its neck, the search for the duchess is on. Eisenheim soon finds her floating in a river and rushes to her; she has a sword wound in her neck. He cradles her soaked, pale body in his arms and cries. Uhl goes to view the body in a covered cassion and finds a jewel in the folds of her dress. When he surveys the stable, the apparent crime scene, he sees something in the straw in the stall. But his attentions are diverted to other matters—seeing that Eisenheim, who is accusing Leopold of Sophie’s murder, is removed from Vienna.
Eisenheim decides to close his show. He goes off, only to return several months later to prepare a new show in a theatre he has purchased. The theatre is guarded by Chinese helpers, lending the impression that Eisenheim has been studying some very mysterious arts during his absence. When the new show opens, it appears that Eisenheim can conjure the spirits of the dead.
Championed by the religious faithful for providing proof of an afterlife, Eisenheim tempts fate by conjuring the spirit of Sophie, who provides cryptic information about her death. Whispers about Leopold’s complicity in her murder—he has been rumored to have killed women before—force Uhl to take action to shut down the show and place Eisenheim under arrest for fraud. “Why did you do it?” Uhl implores. “To be with her,” answers Eisenheim. A truer word was never spoken.
In fact, Eisenheim never pretends to be anything but an illusionist—indeed avoids the fraud charge and jail by telling the assembled crowd outside the police station that what he does on stage is not real. Perhaps that should have tipped me off that all was not as it seemed, but I completely went with this movie. Even seeing obviously computer-generated illusions that would have been exceedingly difficult to pull off as a mechanical trick in any case, I let Eisenheim trick me. It was fun. Nonetheless, Eisenheim’s plans were, in the final analysis, ruthless and unjust. The film made Leopold look like a slime who deserved whatever was coming to him and did so in the name of love. Maybe that’s fine for the romantics, but it certainly cast a shadow for me.
The cat-and-mouse game between Eisenheim and Uhl was very entertaining. Although Eisenheim clearly found Uhl’s toadying to Leopold disgusting, Uhl’s admiration for Eisenheim’s skill was genuine and ultimately redeeming. Giamatti was never better than as this pragmatic cop with strong powers of observation—yet not quite strong enough. Norton was a convincing lover and charismatic mesmerist, particularly in the period theatres that blazed with flaming torches for footlights. Sewell, a highly underrated actor, brought a steely determination to his character; every action was completely consistent and intensely felt. One feels Biel tried her best, but she really is little more than a very pretty face. That works, however, in this context of eternal love, and she really wasn’t in the film enough to ruin it.
All in all, this is a clever, visually exciting film—well-paced, well-acted, and especially intriguing for mystery lovers. I want to thank everyone responsible for making The Illusionist for providing this great send-off for my mother, a loyal film fan to the end. l