National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Video Picks

BY Steven D. Greydanus

January 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/10/07 at 10:00 AM


The Illusionist (2006) Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist (now on DVD) is a moody, atmospheric fairy tale for adults.

Set in pre-World War I Vienna, the story pits the unflappable, charismatic magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) against the heir to the Austria-Hungary monarchy, Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

Between the two men is Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), Leopold’s paramour — and Eisenheim’s first love from a lifetime ago.

Eisenheim maintains a quiet, commanding presence on or off the stage, an inscrutable sense of knowing more than he lets on, stumping the egotistical crown prince again and again while winning the guarded admiration of Leopold’s chief inspector (Paul Giamatti).

When the rivalry takes a tragic turn, Eisenheim reinvents himself with a new show devoted to spiritualist phenomena. The moral murkiness of Eisenheim’s trajectory here is a bit problematic, and not entirely alleviated by a public admission that the new show is not supernatural, and is meant only to entertain.

Climactic revelations raise further moral ambiguities, though the prince is ultimately responsible for what happens in the end.

Some viewers may see through the plot’s central illusion early on; others may be as fooled as most of the characters. On a fundamental level, though, The Illusionist succeeds: While the storytellers are at work, the spell holds.

Fans of G. K. Chesterton’s pudding-faced, sharp-witted clerical sleuth, Father Brown, rejoice! Seven classic Father Brown stories — adapted with gratifying fidelity in the 1974 television series starring Kenneth More — are now available on DVD in Father Brown — Set 1.

Known to American viewers from PBS’s “Mystery!” series, “Father Brown” was produced in the UK by Sir Lew Grade’s ATV Network. There were 13 episodes in all; Set 1 comprises the first seven, with such classic stories as “The Hammer of God,” “The Oracle of the Dog,” and “The Eye of Apollo.” (Among the six episodes awaiting Set 2 are “The Arrow of Heaven” and “The Secret Garden.”)

Father Brown was most famously played by Alec Guinness in the 1954 film The Detective, but that film, despite flashes of Chestertonian wit and Guinness’s greatness, botched the character and Chesterton’s worldview in numerous ways frustrating to any GKC fan. This series, despite modest production values, offers a far more satisfying sampling of what makes the Father Brown stories so enduringly popular.

Among the literary heirs of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown seems an unlikely detective hero, with his fuddled, helpless manner: a clerical Columbo without a badge. How could this sheltered cleric have any insight into the criminal mind?

But Chesterton’s central conceit was that no one is better qualified to understand what evil lurks in the hearts of men than the confessor to whom men bare their souls.

Content advisory: The Illusionist: A scene of strong sexuality (nothing explicit); some violence, including an implied offscreen murder and an onscreen suicide; numerous séance-like exhibitions, an obscene sexual reference. Adults. Father Brown: Much breaking of laws and Commandments, including murder, theft, and adultery. Teens and up.