The Illusionist

Based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," this handsome, elegant and restrained fable about love, artifice and power in fin de siecle Vienna is lavishly imagined and yet oddly airless. It begins in medias res, as a celebrated conjurer who appears to be communicating with the spirits of the dead is arrested...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," this handsome, elegant and restrained fable about love, artifice and power in fin de siecle Vienna is lavishly imagined and yet oddly airless. It begins in medias res, as a celebrated conjurer who appears to be communicating with the spirits of the dead is arrested mid-performance by bourgeois Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who then reports to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), whose interest in this troublesome traveling player seems vastly out of proportion to the man's significance. The rest of the film unfolds in flashback, as Uhl relates the story of a common cabinetmaker's son (Aaron Johnson) and his love for a girl his own age who happened, most unfortunately, to be the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson). Cruelly separated by rigid social mores, Eisenheim and Sophie eventually went their separate ways, she back to aristocratic society and he to the mysterious East, where he studied the mystical arts and mastered illusions so complex, beautiful and confounding that rumors of real sorcery swirled around him. When Eisenheim (Edward Norton) returns to Austria more than a decade later, he's remade himself into a sophisticated personality whose artistic legerdemain and philosophical patter bewitch Viennese society. Even the Crown Prince and his retinue attend, and the prince magnanimously volunteers his fiancee for a particularly eerie illusion in which Eisenheim appears to separate the lady from her reflection in a mirror. The lady is none other than Sophie (the lovely but miserably miscast Jessica Biel), and a battle of wits for her very soul ensues, pitting the self-made illusionist against a corrupt aristocrat plotting to usurp his own father's crown. Uhl, a butcher's son made good through the prince's patronage, is caught squarely in the middle, torn between respect for the once-lowly magician who seized control of his own destiny and loyalty to his benefactor. Neil Burger's follow-up to his cleverly crafted debut, the mockumentary INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN (2002), is at its best before it draws its intriguing narrative threads together: The leaden third act undoes the carefully cultivated atmosphere of mystery and imagination, wiping away the intricately stylish cobwebs that give the story its archly calculated appeal. Even so, the subtle performances are absorbing throughout, with the exception of Biels' turn as the duchess: With her bronzed, plushy looks and casually athletic bearing, she's thoroughly unconvincing as an Austrian blueblood, even one so defiantly bold and unconventional as Sophie.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: Based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," this handsome, elegant and restrained fable about love, artifice and power in fin de siecle Vienna is lavishly imagined and yet oddly airless. It begins in medias r… (more)

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