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Gazing into the Abyss: Michael Rawdon's Journal


The Illusionist

Now here's a really neat film to go see: The Illusionist (2006).

Around the turn of the 19th/20th century, a young peasant in Vienna Austria learns how to perform magic tricks. He also meets and falls in love with a young duchess. But when their love is denied, he leaves to travel the world, and returns 15 years later as the magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton), and performs to rave reviews and great box receipts in the city. Such is his success that he attracts the attention of the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who volunteers his fiancee, Sophie (Jessica Biel), for one of Eisenheim's tricks. Sophie is the woman Eisenheim had fallen in love with years ago, and they find that they are still in love.

One of Leopold's aides, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) learns that Eisenheim and Sophie are planning to run away together, and he tells the Prince. Confronting Sophie, the drunken Prince goes into a rage and attacks her as she goes to leave the castle. The next day, Sophie's body is found in a river. Eisenheim accuses the Prince, but Uhl quiets him, knowing such an investigation would come to nothing. Eisenheim retires from the public for a time, but then re-opens his show in a new venue, apparently bringing spirits back from the dead, causing unrest in the city, and bringing his conflict with the Prince to a boil.

With music by Philip Glass (who contributed to another good things-aren't-what-they-seem film, The Truman Show), The Illusionist is eerie and atmospheric, but also very down-to-earth in many ways. What makes it all work is the terrific acting performances by the three leads: Norton, Sewell and Uhl. Eisenheim and Leopold are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum - Eisenheim cool and calculating, Leopold passionate and uncontrolled - but each presents a veneer of the other's character. Uhl is caught firmly between them, admiring Eisenheim and recognizing that the Prince is a psychopath, but firmly joined professionally and politically to Leopold. Uhl's performance is the glue which hold the whole film together, and his ability to convey his thoughts and feelings with a glance is terrific.

(Biel has a considerably smaller role and only has one chance to show her acting stuff, when the Prince confronts her. He actually does quite well there, but it's not her film.)

The script is really the best kind of story, I think: It's a serious, tight plot with humor and drama and conflict, but with serious moral undertones and a presentation of fantastic occurrences which is completely ambiguous: Is Eisenheim for real, or isn't he? I'm not sure whether it's to the film's credit that we never quite find out (not for sure, although we're given a big nudge in one particular direction), but then the story isn't really about whether Eisenheim is for real so much as what he does with his talents.

(Historical note: As best I can tell, Leopold is supposed to be the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Austrian Empire, but he is of course a fictional character. Elements of his story might be based on the Emperor's actual son, Rudolf, though. Or, maybe I'm completely off-base!)

I enjoyed the film thoroughly, and at the end turned to Debbi and said, "What a great film!"

Fans of The Sixth Sense should love it. I did.

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