3 Stars – Thoughtful
After searching the world for an unsolvable mystery, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) discovers only one: the undying love he has for his childhood soul mate, Sophie (Jessica Biel). The reality of this truth is the heart of this compelling story masterfully told by Neil Burger in his second film, “The Illusionist.” The story comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Millhauser.
Using many of the same ingredients as the popular love story “Princess Bride,” Burger’s story is set in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. The mystery flashes back to the young teen infatuation of the son of a cabinet-maker with the daughter of a duchess. Having had a chance encounter with an illusionist, the young man enchants Sophie (as a child played by Eleanor Tomlinson) not only with his magical skills but also with his heart, and they fall deeply in love. Intending to reject the segregation of their disparate classes they attempt to run away together, but in the evening of their attempt they are captured when young Eisenheim cannot make them disappear and Sophie is taken back to her castle. The next day the young man began a fifteen year journey to discover the power of illusion to make a person disappear.
Like young Westley of “Princess Bride,” Eisenheim returns years later with the skills he needs to win Sophie from the evil clutches of her fiancé, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). But in this tale he does not have the skill of the sword, therefore he seeks to literally make them disappear.
His unwitting accomplice in this task is an observant police inspector named Uhl (Paul Giamatti). A man of integrity, Uhl is also a commoner having been born a butcher’s son. This common beginning has caused him to always be a servant of the upper class and never accepted into it. But his sense of loyal service to the crown is brought into conflict with his commitment to truth and justice. It is Uhl’s place within the tale that becomes necessary for love to win out.
The power of this romantic tale rests not only in the believable romance between the two lovers both as teenagers and as adults, but also in the evil of the prince whose egotistical ambition is matched by his abusive behaviors. Love and justice winning out over evil and ambition speaks to our hearts. It is, as Eisenheim found, a truth that is truly an unsolvable mystery and the source of all our hope.
- In the fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries there were many evil princes that needed to be brought to justice. Why do you think that still speaks to us today? Do you believe this film will be shown in nations still under a monarchy?
- The power of love to overcome evil is the common theme of a romantic tale. Do you believe this is because it is based on a real truth or a hoped-for fantasy?
- The necessity of justice supporting love is what gives love a chance. Have you ever attempted to solve a problem with love without justice? Did it work?
- Do you believe Eisenheim and Sophie lived “Happily ever after?” Why or why not?