In 2006, my husband and I went to the movies. We’d been hearing for a long time about a film where Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman go head to head as rival magicians, with Michael Caine as stage manager, and we were both intrigued and interested. Only problem was, neither one of us could remember the title, so my husband bought tickets for The Illusionist. The lights went down, the movie started, and…Ed Norton’s name popped up.
“Okay,” one of us said. “Maybe they’re not crediting them to up the suspense.”
Looking back on it, that idea was sorta lame because we already knew Bale and Jackman were in the movie we had been hoping to see. Not knowing what to make of it or waste our tickets, we sat back and watched The Illusionist unfold.
The film opens in Vienna, with Eisenheim (Ed Norton) sitting in a chair on an empty stage. The theater is packed to the gills, with the whole audience holding their breath. Eisenheim is motionless, not even blinking, and then a mist appears beside him. The audience gasps, and a woman cries out, “It’s her! I know it’s her. She wants to tell us something.”
Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) rises out of the audience and arrests Eisenheim, and to great uproar, takes him into custody. He then goes to see Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who asks him how the interrogation is going. It’s not, but Eisenheim’s past might provide some clues, and Uhl knows all about Eisenheim’s past.
Eisenheim was originally Edward (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the son of a cabinet-maker. He was a nondescript kid until he meets an old man under a tree in a field who pulls a rose out of his clenched fist, then turns it into a flute. He makes the flute fly away, and while Edward watches it, the old man disappears.
From then on, Edward is unusually gifted in illusions and magic. One day he’s walking down the street balancing a ball on a stick, and some boys on horseback heckle him. There’s a girl, Sophie (Eleanor Tomlinson), with them, but instead of heckling, she follows him.
The two become fast friends, but because of their different stations in life, they have to sneak out to see each other. Edward gives Sophie a locket that looks like an oval with a butterfly painted on it, and by a special trick, the pieces slide into a heart shape. Inside the heart is Edward’s picture. Sophie and Edward make plans to run away together, but right as they’re about to leave, Sophie’s bodyguards come and take her away.
Edward goes out into the world on his own. The history at this stage isn’t clear except that he changes his name to Eisenheim and bursts onto the world stage. The first time Uhl sees him, Eisenheim makes an orange tree grow out of what looks like an empty flower-pot. Uhl is anxious to find out how Eisenheim did it.
Uhl’s curiosity is further piqued when Crown Prince Leopold decides to attend Eisenheim’s next performance. Eisenheim asks for a volunteer, and Leopold sends the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel) to the stage. Eisenheim’s eyes widen as he recognizes Sophie.
Leopold is so impressed by Eisenheim’s show that he invites him to a special dinner. Before that happens, though, Eisenheim and Sophie meet secretly. She recognized him too, but it took her longer than Eisenheim.
At the dinner, Eisenheim amazes everyone by passing his hand over a sheet of paper and producing a picture of Leopold’s father, the Emperor. For some reason this gets under Leopold’s skin, but what really ticks him off is when Eisenheim borrows his jeweled sword and balances it on its point, using Excalibur as an object lesson. The sword can only be wielded by the true king. He then has a few members of the audience attempt to lift it, but none of them can. Even when Leopold tries to take his sword back, he strains and struggles a bit before Eisenheim finally ends the trick. The message is obvious: Leopold isn’t the rightful ruler of Austria.
Now thoroughly incensed, Leopold ends the show and says it’s time for a drink.
Later on, Sophie rides up to Eisenheim’s house outside of town to warn him that Leopold is putting him out of Vienna. She also tells him of Leopold’s plans to overthrow his father and marry her to get more power. Before she can say much, though, she and Eisenheim fall into each other’s arms. Nothing is shown but random passes over nondescript bare skin, but it gets the point across. Eisenheim warns Sophie that she needs to leave Leopold, but it’s not that easy.
Eisenheim isn’t surprised when he goes to his theatre the next day and sees his posters shredded. Leopold has ordered his show closed, and Uhl was the one to carry it out. It doesn’t matter all that much to Eisenheim, because he’s hatching a plan to spirit Sophie away from Leopold.
Uhl keeps close watch over Eisenheim from then on. The next thing to do is a bank run, but what confuses Uhl is when he sees Eisenheim pass a suitcase with all his money to Sophie. He’s further baffled at the train station when he overhears Eisenheim tell a man, “When it’s done, you’ll travel ahead with her and I shall follow.”
This is another head-scratcher for the good inspector. He knows that Eisenheim and Sophie are lovers, but he doesn’t understand where it’s all going. Meanwhile, Leopold’s Green-eyed Monster gets greener and more monstrous.
So much of The Illusionist is done superbly. It has a soft, vintage-y, sepia-toned feel to it, and particularly in the flashback scenes it almost looks like a silent movie. This is rather appropriate, seeing as Phillip Glass, who wrote the score, also scores numerous silent films.
The plot is as tight as a drum. While Eisenheim isn’t a dynamic character, he has a purpose, as does Sophie, which is to show up the corruption and scandal that plagued the Austro-Hungarian upper classes. Meanwhile, Uhl, the audience’s conduit for the story, has to figure out what’s really important to him. He’s torn between his admiration for Eisenheim and his desire to climb the career ladder. In the process, Uhl goes from sucking up to the titled gentry and doing Leopold’s bidding to pursuing truth.
Speaking of truth, The Illusionist is fiction laced with fact. Leopold’s storyline was very loosely taken from that of Rudolph Franz Karl Joseph, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, who died in a murder-suicide in 1889 with his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. He was thirty; she was seventeen. The deaths took place at the Mayerling hunting lodge and are therefore referred to as the Mayerling Incident.
In order to avoid scandal and ensure Rudolph a Catholic burial, the royal family had Mary secretly buried and chalked Rudolph’s suicide up to temporary insanity. The Mayerling Incident plunged the country into turmoil, as there was so much secrecy surrounding it. It also meant Rudolph’s younger brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig was now in line for the throne. When Karl died of typhus, his son, Franz Ferdinand became emperor, which further increased the tension, and led to Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914.
Sophie may have been slightly based on Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, who was the lady-in-waiting to the wife of the Duke von Taschen, She, of course, went on to marry Archduke Franz Ferdinand and died with him when he was assassinated. She was only 46.
It’s doubtful that Sophie knew Rudolph, as she didn’t meet his nephew Franz until 1894, five years after Rudolph’s death, but who really knows. Sophie was the daughter of Count Bohuslav Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin and much younger than Rudolph, although they would have moved in the same circles.
Even Eisenheim had a basis in fact. He was modeled after Erik Jan Hanussen, a wildly popular German magician who came to fame in the early 20th century. He was said to be a mind reader, clairvoyant, and an occultist who taught Hitler crowd control and delivery style, although some doubt that. The supreme irony of this is that Hanussen was secretly a Moravian Jew whose real name was Hermann Steinschneider.
In 1933, at the age of 43, Hanussen was assassinated, possibly by the SA. There are a couple of theories as to why it happened. One, Göering and Goebbels were jealous of Hanussen’s proximity to Hitler and wanted him eliminated. Two, Hanussen was outed as a Jew and the Nazis couldn’t stand the fact that they owed something to a Jewish man. Either way, Hanussen was shot and his body dumped in a wood, where he was discovered by a farmer.
The film downplays any connection to real people, possibly because Rudolph and Sophie have many living descendants and other relatives who may not have wanted to be mixed up with a Hollywood movie.
I can’t blame them, but The Illusionist is a unique film, gratifying and intelligent with a great payoff. It leads the viewer along, tantalizingly, and if something doesn’t make sense when it happens, it all becomes clear later. When Inspector Uhl finally figures out what Eisenheim is up to, he throws his head back and laughs in satisfaction. I can relate, because my husband and I felt the same way.
As for that other movie we were hoping to see? Well, that’s another story for another time.
For more of the Unexpected Blogathon, go here. Thanks for reading, all!
This film is available on DVD.