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the illusionist

The Illusionist
Directed By:
Neil Burger
Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan


Written by:
Ricardo Barberini

June 7, 2007


At the turn of the 20th Century, Franz Josef I was the emperor of Austria and Hungary.  His son and heir Archduke Rudolf-perhaps like Prince Charles today- could not wait for his father to die to inherit the empire.  The Hungarians wanted to be independent of the Austrians.  So, they conspired with him.  The Archduke was to go to Budapest and upon arrival would be declared the king of Hungary.  The Austrian secret police discovered the plot and a distraught Archduke was prevented from leaving Vienna. 


Shortly thereafter, Archduke Rudolf, who by some accounts was somewhat mentally unbalanced, committed suicide with his 17 year old lover Baroness Mary Vetsera in the small hamlet of Mayerling in southern Austria.  That event actually changed the course of history of the world and eventually led to World War I and World War II.  How that happened is a different story. 

When we saw this movie, we realized that Leopold was a proxy for Rudolf so the fact that he committed suicide at the end did not surprise us.  In Europe many people remember their history and the happenings that brought two deadly wars upon them.  However, by all accounts Archduke Rudolf was a very progressive liberal man completely unlike the Leopold of this story. 

Therefore, the location, the time period, the motives and the events in this movie are generally accurate.  However, additional characters have been added to make the events more interesting.

A young working class boy and an aristocratic girl fall in love.  They are forcibly separated by her parents.  He disappears and goes to Russia, the Ottoman lands and China to learn the latest magic tricks.  He comes back to Vienna as Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the greatest magician in Europe.  Meanwhile, his love interest, Sophie played by Jessica Biel, has become a companion of Archduke Leopold who is the sole heir to the Austrian Empire.  The Archduke intensely dislikes his father and is waiting for him to die to inherit the crown.  

The Archduke is mentally unstable and is rumored to have beaten many of his paramours and even killed one of them.  During a performance at the theatre, Eisenheim and Sophie meet again after many years.  Their love flares up one more time. Leopold (Rufus Sewell) takes an instantaneous dislike to Eisenheim and asks a senior secret police inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti, to investigate and destroy Eisenheim.   Inspector Uhl takes a liking to  Eisenheim and tries, in his own way, to save him from the wrath of Archduke Leopold. 

What happens next is really interesting.  Sophie has a violent argument with Leopold and is found stabbed and dead in a shallow river.  Eisenheim and many other Austrians who know about Leopold’s violent temper think that he had killed Sophie in an outpouring of rage.  Pieces of evidence turn up that seem to link Leopold to the murder.  Even Inspector Uhl begins to have doubts about Archduke Leopold’s innocence and enters the Imperial grounds, which are legally out of bounds to the police, to search for evidence of Leopold’s guilt which he eventually finds.

Faced with such damning evidence, he informs the emperor of Archduke’s perceived guilt.  Then he confronts Leopold with his evidence which pushes the volatile Leopold over the top to commit suicide rather than face the courts and public humility.  If you would like to know the surprise ending, go the end of this review.

This movie was based on a story by Steven Millhauser. We are lucky that the director, Neil Burger, knew his stuff and the cast led by Edward Norton managed to deliver a great performances. 

Edward Norton came to public notice in the Primal Fear in 1996 when he played the part of a super clever homicidal maniac, Aaron Stampler, who gets away with murder.   He outperformed Richard Gere who was the lead actor in that movie.  At the time we predicted a great acting future for him and he has been going on strongly ever since.  However, Primal Fear was probably his best performance to-date.  He was sweet and evil at the same time and realistically so.  He is not as incisively great this time, but he deliver a solid performance.  Jessica Biel as Sophie was still so, so.  We have seen several of her movies and she has a relatively attractive face.

Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl is somewhat a knockoff of David Suchet as Poirot, a rather comical and yet principled policeman torn by divided loyalties between his fidelity to the crown and his devotion to truth and justice.

Rufus Sewell as Archduke Leopold was OK.  He did not deliver the viperish evil personality that we had expected. Instead he was a maudling melancholy character who really felt sorry for himself but tried to cover his shortcomings with bravado. Maybe, he was trying to cover his inadequacy with violence toward women.  

The direction by the new comer Neil Burger was quite passable.  One wonders how someone like the great John Houston would have directed this movie.

There are no real sex sequences in this movie. 

We give this movie star star1/2.  It is really a good movie for the entire family.  However, please read the above review to understand the historical background while watching the film

The Ending:

After all, nothing is what it seems especially if you are dealing with a magician.  In the final moments of the movie, inspector Uhl and the rest of us discover that the murder of Sophie was a hoax elegantly, if devilishly, arranged by Eisenheim.  It was meant to throw suspicion to Leopold and have him out their lives. Sophie is alive and waiting for the love of her life who joins her at a secret hideout.

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