Monotony has crept in. Apart from the Sunday which passes with a surprising celerity, all other days just seem to crawl. What I am I doing these days, you ask, Precious? Repeating the same old mistakes and paying for them, through EMIs. But more about it later. It’s 8.30 in night. What can I do? Ah yes! I have a movie. “The Illusionist”. Done. So long.
Der Film ist aus. “The Illusionist” is setup in the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, capital of Austria. “The Illusionist” or Edward Abramowitz, who later assumes the sobriquet, Eisenheim (Iron house????), is a magician. He has spent a large part of his life in the Orient. Nobody knows who taught him magic there or how much he learnt. But his repertoire is impressive. For instance during one of his performances he asks the audience whether man can stop or slow down or accelerate the flow of time and then he puts an orange seed in an empty container and right there in front of everyone appears an orange bonsai with of course, tiny oranges clinging to it. He is not any ordinary magician, he is a wizard or so praise his admirers. All is going well for him when, during his performance, one day, fate reunites him with his childhood sweetheart, Duchess von Taschen. But there is a hitch. She is on her way to marry the crown prince of Austria, Leopold. Yes yes. The trouble has started. Taking the liberty to digress a bit, I say, why do sensible men fall in love? Fall they must? Or is it simply too tempting not to? Or is it indeed a genuine emotion? I am perplexed! Let’s go back to the story. This crown prince of ours is a woman beater, an insecure and an arrogant person. But our Duchess is helpless. Crown prince Leopold plans to marry her and thereby annex her land, Hungary, to his kingdom. Meanwhile Eisenheim and Duchess von Taschen recognize each other (they were separated in their greener years), meet and, of course, copulate, a sina qua non for a Hollywood flick, in an aesthetically shot sequence.
Oh! I forgot the narrator. Meet Chief Inspector Walter Uhl, who is telling us this tale of illusions and magic. This chief inspector has committed to help crown prince Leopold in his plans to dethrone the Emperor of Austria (i.e., crown prince Leopold’s father). In return Leopold has promised Uhl to fulfill all his political aspirations and thus obliges Uhl. Uhl spies Duchess von Taschen and Eisenheim, questions him, begs him to keep away from her. Now this Uhl is an extremely interesting character, even more than Eisenheim, I dare say. He knows that by pledging his loyalty to Leopold he will realize his dreams. But at the same time he is not the quintessential venal cop. He has a conscience. Apart from being interested in Eisenheim’s art, he claims to be an amateur; he also desires his well being. Later when he becomes sure of crown prince Leopold’s complete moral debasement, he fearlessly confronts him, even putting his life in danger. All these conflicting emotions, his genuine admiration for Eisenheim and most importantly the sharp and keen inspector in him come out very nicely. Paul Giamatti plays Uhl. I first met Giamatti in M.Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” (2006) and I think, this time around he was far more convincing.
Now the climax. Eisenheim summons the illusionist in him. Leopold has already shut down his troupe. Also he knows that Duchess von Taschen loves Eisenheim. One night Leopold confronts Duchess von Taschen and threatens her. She defies him and leaves the chamber. He follows her to the stable where they have a noisy argument and suddenly she comes out, riding on a horse, wounded. She disappears and Eisenheim discovers her in a stream, dead. Postmortem reveals a fatal wound by asword or knife. An emotionally distraught Eisenheim tells Uhl that Leopold has murdered her, who obviously doesn’t believe. But the evidence is quite suggestive. Eisenheim buys a run-down theatre and starts a new kind of show. He calls spritits of dead people, allows them to converse with the audience. However he is just leading them to a surprise. One day, in the presence of crown prince Leopold, who is present there under the guise of a layman, he summons Duchess von Taschen. She tells people that her killer is in the audience. This generates a lot of negative sentiment for the already unpopular crown prince, which unsettles him. In his next performance Eisenheim again calls Duchess von Taschen and this time Uhl is ready to arrest him under the charges of fraud, charlatanism and conspiracy against the empire. As he reaches to grab Eisenheim, he meets thin air, only to realize that till now he was talking to an illusion. Eisenheim disappears, leaving everyone stunned. A thorough search follows but in vain. From Eisenheim chamber Uhl gets clues which lead him to crown prince Leopold, Duchess von Taschen’s killer. He conveys the truth to the emperor and refuses crown prince Leopold any further help. Leopold, in panic, shoots himself. In the last scene just as Uhl is coming out of the royal palace, an urchin hands him a packet saying Eisenheim has given it. Its pages illustrate the technique behind that orange tree trick. Uhl spots Eisenheim in the crowd, chases him but he escapes. Then the mystery unfolds itself for Uhl and he realizes what Eisenheim has done to all of them. A master illusionist,as he is, Eisenheim first concocts a perfect case for Duchess von Taschen’s murder by crown prince Leopold. Then sends her out of the country, successfully turns public sentiment against the prince and leads Uhl to the evidence. By the time Uhl sees the big picture, Eisenheim is on his way “to be with her”, forever.
Performances by the actors are very good. Especially Giamatti and Rufus Sewell (crown prince Leopold) stand out. Sewell has portrayed the menacing and vindictive Prince superbly. You may have seen him in “The Legend of Zorro” (2005). Here also he has a similar kind of role. Jessica Biel (Duchess von Taschen) is ok. Edward Norton as Eisenheim is very very expressive. This is not a role which involves a lot of physical acting. Norton says it with his eyes. Watch out for the duels between Sewell and Norton. Gripping, to say the least. Then there are the illusions. The orange tree, which I mentioned earlier, or the painting of the Emperor or Duchess von Taschen’s tryst with her soul. All are fascinating to watch. But the best among the pack is the one in which the butterflies carry the handkerchief to the lady. Like Uhl, I am,too, confounded. Director Neil Burger scores handsomely here.
By the way, since the setting is in Austria, presence of German is evident. For instance I saw a board “Tanz Schule” which, of course, means “Dance School”.
When Eisenheim is trying to convince Uhl that crown prince Leopold has murdered Duchess von Taschen, Uhl retorts that what he presents as evidence (testimony by Duchess von Taschen’s spirit) is just an illusion. Eisenheim replies, “Perhaps there is truth in the illusion”. Perhaps there is.
So much about the movie. Its 2.30 .The night is dark and still. The Nocturnal must retire. Gute Nacht, Precious.