The Illusionist: Apple Strudel

Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
(PG-13, 110 min.)

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." William Shakespeare

With little fanfare and faint praise, this gem of a film works its magic on screen to mesmerize audiences craving a love story worthy of Romeo and Juliet, as well as a mystery that would tease and delight even the great Sherlock Holmes.

Like Shakespeare’s legendary lovers, Edward (Edward Norton) and Sophie (Jessica Biel), are drawn to each other immediately, but it is not feuding families, but rigid class distinctions that separate the two. After all, Sophie is a duchess, and Edward the son of a cabinetmaker, so the two meet secretly where Edward entertains the royal maiden with his early feats of magic and tales from China, where he has heard, they can actually make a man disappear. Unfortunately, when they’re discovered in their hiding place by her irate family, Edward is not yet able to melt the pair into thin air, and so the two are torn apart, threats of violence to Edward’s family rendering their continued friendship hopeless.

Fifteen years later, Edward, his name changed to Eisenheim, has sheared his curls and his innocence, a severe Vandyke beard part of his austere stage presence as much as his inscrutable dark eyes. He has also mastered his craft, packing the theatres in Vienna to witness impossible feats – a seed becoming a tree and bearing fruit, round, ripe oranges that he throws out into the audience: a lacy handkerchief delivered by butterfly attendants, black gloves tossed into the air to fly away as ravens. 

It is enough to impress Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), taking a momentary break from cogitations on his own grandeur and intelligence, so that in a flash of enthusiasm, he volunteers his fiancée to assist on stage. Although Edward recognizes his childhood friend immediately, the joy of seeing her - a radiant yet plucky Jessical Biel - is at once extinguished by the realities of her present relationship. It is a tribute to Norton’s fine acting that in an instant his eyes register recognition, hope, and then stoic resignation.

So the love triangle is set up, but the sparing between rival lovers is not swordplay, although it does involve a sword, a handcrafted piece of art belonging to the prince, who is as jealous of it as he is of his perfect mustache, which he caresses fondly from time to time in true villain fashion. For just an instant, Edward puts a spell on the jewel encrusted blade, so that the proud Crown Prince cannot pull it from where is magically anchored on stage. This insult cements their enmity, the crown prince sending his chief inspector of police to close down any future performances featuring the arrogant illusionist.

Chief Inspector Uhl’s (Paul Giamatti) mustache and beard are coarse and scruffy, like the fur of a fat beaver, but his ambitions are as finely honed as those of the two jousting rivals. If he plays his cards right, he may one day be mayor, thus small things like keeping track of the duchess’ dalliances, or manufacturing bogus reasons to shut down Eisenheim, are part of his job description. But if truth be told, Inspector Uhl, an amateur magician himself, is drawn to the mysterious Eisenheim, and he is not nearly as furious as the prince as the crafty illusionist, who with slippery logic and artful dodging, evades all efforts to shut him down.

It is the textured performance of Giamatti, his boyish eagerness to learn a few of Eisenheim’s stage secrets contrasted with his good soldiering as the prince’s in the pocket policeman, that anchors the film and brings it to a different level. Some have recalled in his performance the not quite corrupt official played to perfection by Claude Raines or Orson Wells.

This fine ensemble acting is against a backdrop of precise detail, Old Vienna captured in sepia tones. From the grotesque antlered hallway to the sparkling crystal and inlaid oak, we experience the uneven grandeur of the Royal Hunting Lodge. Yellow gaslights spill onto cobbled streets worn smooth by clattering hoofed horses as elegant as the carriages they pull.

And on stage, he with the dark inscrutable eyes inhabits the realm of substance and shadow to use all the powers of art and artifice to recapture a lost love.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Ah, Vienna. Besides its great Lipizzaner horses and legendary Sigmund Freud, the great city is also known for its fabulous pastry. And what Viennese pastry more suited to the lovely Sophie, with her apple cheeked innocence, than Apple Strudel, that warm and tender delight.

I have chosen an easy to make version, but visit this website if you are interested in a more authentic but also complicated German Apple Strudel from Jo Vandevelde’s Austrian-born grandmother.

Apple Strudel

Ingredients 

  • 1 Granny Smith apple - peeled, cored and coarsely shredded
  • 3 Granny Smith apples - peeled, cored and sliced
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup milk

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Place apples in a large bowl. Stir in brown sugar and golden raisins; set aside. Place puff pastry on baking sheet. Roll lightly with a rolling pin. Arrange apple filling down the middle of the pastry lengthwise. Fold the pastry lengthwise around the mixture. Seal edges of pastry by using a bit of water on your fingers, and rubbing the pastry edges together. Whisk egg and milk together, and brush onto top of pastry.
  3. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown.

Recipe Source: Jess Luv