Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020


Film Review

The Illusionist

(August 27, 2006) Fin de siecle Vienna was a time and place of extraordinary intellectual and artistic creativity. Freud, Klimt, Loos, Hoffman, Schoenberg, Strauss, Mahler, Wittgenstein, and many others were contributing to a revolution in thought and art. At the same time, throughout all of Europe, there was a great interest in the "other world", with attempts to contact the dead. Yet with all of this creativity, Vienna had elected a notoriously anti-Semitic mayor who was strident in his belief that the Jews were responsible for much of the corruption in the world. In this setting, Neil Burger, the director, tells a fascinating story of a cabinet maker's son from a small village, who after meeting an old magician, becomes fascinated with magic. And perhaps more. It has the mark of a Yiddish folk tale, but darker than most.

The young man, Edward Abramovitz (sp?), initially played by a gorgeous unknown, studies magic, and becomes an amateur magician. One day he meets a beautiful young woman, Sophie, a duchess (played by Jessica Biel), who soon becomes fascinated with him, and they end up becoming close friends, meeting secretly to avoid her parents' wrath. Discovered in their hiding place, she pleads with Edward to make them both disappear. He concentrates, but they are soon seized, she carried away, he warned to stay away from her or suffer great harm. But he has given her a wooden locket with a secret, that she treasures. Discouraged he leaves the village to go out into the world.

Fifteen years later, an illusionist, Eisenheim, as he calls himself, arrives in Vienna and begins to do very sophisticated and possibly unworldly magic. Played by Edward Norton, in a performance that runs away with the show, not to diminish the good acting from everyone. He amazes his audiences with tricks such as growing an orange tree from a seed in a few moments, and other very spectacular feats that I won't describe. All done with understatement on a Spartan stage, which makes his tricks seem even more amazing. Even in this age of digital machinations, these scenes are fascinating and suspenseful. He quickly becomes the talk of the town, and soon the Crown Prince, played by Rufus Sewell, arrives for a performance with his fiancee, a duchess named Sophie. The Prince is egotistical, cruel, and skeptical of the magician. When Edward asks for a volunteer for a trick with a dark edge, the Prince volunteers Sophie. She does not recognize Edward, now with a beard, until she is facing him on the stage. He performs his trick, which irritates the Prince. Invited to the Prince's mansion, he performs another trick that humiliates the Prince. The enraged Prince orders the chief inspector, Uhl, wonderfully played by Paul Giamatti, to discover the secrets of the magician's tricks. Uhl is a sycophant, hoping to become chief of police, and eagerly accepts. He is also an amateur magician and very impressed with Edward's tricks, but can only convince Edward to tell him the secret of one simple trick.

Sophie begins seeing Edward secretly, and Uhl's efficient assistants soon discover their liaison. She tells Edward a secret about the Prince, and sets in motion a spell binding (in every sense) second half of the film I don't want to reveal the many surprises here, but no one will think this film slow paced or dull. Some may disagree with the ending, thinking it too manipulative, but it worked for me. Most of the exterior scenes were shot in Prague. The film is handsome, distinctly atmospheric, yet maintains a sense of tension. The cinematography is beautiful and enchanting, with a distinct period look created by brown tinting of some scenes, sometimes slightly out of focus, much like an old photograph. Decorative arts fans will immediately recognize the Viennese Secessionist chairs and other objects. And finally, the music, by Philip Glass (who did the music for The Hours), is outstanding, and seems perfectly matched to the film. The Illusionist has flaws, such as occasionally trite dialog, but it is a great piece of story telling and you will not soon forget it. Playing at the Balboa and may open more widely.

Return to the List of Film Reviews


Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com