In 1900s Vienna, mesmeric entertainer Eisenheim’s magical abilities are wowing the crowds, with an act that ranges from mere tricks to an apparent capacity to raise the dead. However, he has also long been in love with Duchess Sophie von Teschen, which puts him in dangerous competition with the violent, scheming Crown Prince Leopold, who jumps at the opportunity to have the magician arrested grounds of necromancy.
The Illusionist is a 2006 American romantic mystery film written and directed by Neil Burger and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel. It is based loosely on Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The film tells the story of Eisenheim, a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna, who reunites with his childhood love, a woman far above his social standing. The film also depicts a fictionalized version of the Mayerling incident.
The film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and opened the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival; it was distributed in limited release to theaters on August 18, 2006, and expanded nationwide on September 1. The film was a commercial and critical success.
As of June 29, 2008 the film had earned worldwide box office receipts of $87,892,388, including $39,868,642 in the United States, exceeding its reported $16.5 million budget. In the first five months after it was released on DVD in January 2007, the film earned $35.99 million in rental revenue.
The Illusionist received mostly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval score of 74% based on 194 reviews, with an average rating of 6.94/10. The consensus reads, “The Illusionist is an engrossing, well-crafted story of mystery, magic and intrigue that is certain to enchant, if not hypnotize, audiences.” On Metacritic, the film has a score of 68 out of 100 based on 37 reviews, indicating “generally favorable reviews.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review in The Chicago Reader praised Paul Giamatti’s performance of “a character who feels sympathy for the magician but owes allegiance to Leopold and is therefore divided and compromised … Giamatti’s performance is subtle, expressive, and richly nuanced.” Stephen Holden, in his review for The New York Times, praised Edward Norton’s role, which, according to him, “perfectly fits his disturbing inscrutability”. Variety wrote that Jessica Biel “is entirely stunning enough to fight to the death over”. Roger Ebert rated 3.5/4 and wrote that, “The movie sets up a fascinating parable about art, religion and politics, and the misty boundaries between them”.
Director of Photography Dick Pope earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, losing at the 79th Academy Awards to Guillermo Navarro, cinematographer for Pan’s Labyrinth