I love magic. I am particularly fond of magicians and escapologists in the early parts of the 20th century. In fact, Harry Houdini is one of my all-time historical figures. I’ve even been to the Houdini museum in Appleton, Wisconsin to further investigate the man and his life (magic geek!). 2006 is a good year for period magic lovers as we get not one but two films set in the early magic world with The Illusionist and then The Prestige following later this year.
It’s easy to see why I really enjoyed watching The Illusionist, a romantic drama set in turn of the century Vienna, as all of its elements are things I’m into. First, there is a lot of great magic in the movie, the film delves into the world of spiritualism (another interest that is often connected to magicians during this period) and The Illusionist also has a romantic, mysterious story that reeks of atmosphere thanks to director Neil Burger. Magic, romance and mystery—what’s not to like?
Edward Norton plays the new to Vienna conjuror Eisenheim. Audiences are quickly awestruck by the otherworldly quality of his act and word spreads to the pompous prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) that here is a magician who might have tricks too complicated for the prince to figure out.
The story develops a romantic triangle when Eisenheim’s teenage love Sophie (Jessica Biel) shows up as the soon-to-be-bride of Leopold and the pair haven’t seen one another in fifteen years. Sophie is drawn to the intense Eisenheim but the pair’s relationship puts them in jeopardy from Leopold and his police inspector (Paul Giamatti) who hounds their every move.
The Illusionist is drenched with period atmosphere thanks to some nice choices by Burger regarding the look of the film. He wisely chooses to create scenes awash in hazy, soft focus images. He uses iris techniques to further give the film a period feel. The atmosphere and look of the film is one of dusk and romance and this adds to the romantic elements already in the film’s story.
The scenes filmed in the darkened, intimate theatres, candles flickering at the front of the stage, as Eisenheim entrances the rapt audiences, were thrilling to watch. It’s some of the best magic scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie—actually, there hasn’t been much in the way of these kinds of scenes over the years. From what I’ve read of the era—these scenes seem very authentic as I watched them.
In a way, I’m an easy mark for this film just based on the magic scenes alone, but luckily, The Illusionist is about more than just Eisenheim doing tricks. There is a lot to enjoy here—the romance and mystery of the story offer as much satisfaction as the terrific look, production design and magic. After seeing The Illusionist and enjoying it so, all I can think is how long before The Prestige comes out?