Directed by Neil Burger. Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan. Yari Film Group.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: 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.
Buy at Amazon.com
By Steven D. Greydanus
A good storyteller, like a good magician, knows that the audience wants to be fooled, at least while the show is in progress. In the end, we may or may not want to know the truth — for the truth, once revealed, may come either as a revelation or an anticlimax. But while the performance unfolds, we want the illusion, want to be taken out of the real world. Once we see through the story or the trick, the spell is broken, and we’re back in the real world.
A moody, atmospheric fairy tale, The Illusionist is the story of one illusionist, a fictional turn-of-the-last-century magician, being told by another, writer-director Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin). By the film’s end, the viewer knows the truth about some of Eisenheim’s illusions, and some of Burger’s as well. 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.
Based on the Steven Millhauser short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” Burger’s film tells the story of an unflappable, charismatic magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) in pre-WWI Vienna. Like a method actor who stays in character off the set, Eisenheim maintains a quiet, commanding presence on or off the stage, an inscrutable sense of knowing more than he lets on, as he plays a dangerous game of wits with the heir to the Austria–Hungary monarchy, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and with Leopold’s favorite among the police, chief inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
The sparks begin to fly when Leopold, attending one of Eisenheim’s performances, volunteers his paramour, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), for one of the illusionist’s effects. The Duchess takes the stage, and for a moment it seems Eisenheim is the one under a spell. “You’re certain we’ve never met?” he asks rhetorically, for the audience’s benefit.
But they have met, a lifetime ago. In those days, Eisenheim was merely Edward, teenaged son of a cabinet-maker and a new student of conjuring tricks, while Sophie was the young daughter of an aristocratic family for whom Edward’s father was working. Their puppy-love romance was doomed from the start, naturally, though they fantasized about “disappearing” and “running away together.”
Hiding in the forest with authorities closing in, young Sophie pleaded with Edward, “Make us disappear.” Alas, in those days Edward was not yet a powerful enough magician for such an illusion. Humiliated and abandoned, Edward vanished and began a long journey in which he would completely reinvent himself.
Looking back on this journey, Eisenheim later tells Sophie, “I kept thinking I’d find it just around the next corner… a real mystery. The only mystery I ever found was why my heart wouldn’t let go of you.”
The star-crossed lovers face an even greater obstacle now in the figure of Leopold, whose planned marriage to the Duchess is an important part of his political ambitions. But Eisenheim is no longer the hapless teenager who was once sent packing in the woods. His calm dignity is like a cloak pulled tightly around him; never again will he be humiliated, though under the right circumstances he is willing to humiliate others, even Leopold himself.
As much with his insinuating, impudent manner as his seemingly impossible stage miracles, the illusionist stumps the crown prince, an egoist who prides himself on his rationalism and sophistication and is eager to prove himself beyond any deception. At the same time, Eisenheim finds an appreciative audience in Uhl, an amateur conjuring enthusiast who is fascinated by Eisenheim’s mastery.
Like Leopold, Uhl wants to know how Eisenheim’s effects are achieved. But where the prince arrogantly wants to explain away every trick, Uhl respects the illusion and wants to understand how it’s done in order to fully appreciate its ingenuity.
In part, The Illusionist is about the willing suspension of disbelief, the readiness to accept and appreciate the illusion on its own terms. Interestingly, a somewhat similar theme crops up in Giamatti’s other current cinematic fairy tale, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, which contrasts the jaded cynicism of a film critic with the childlike spirit of acceptance Giamatti’s character must adopt in order to receive the story.
Yet in contrast to Shyamalan’s tediously self-conscious “bedtime story,” The Illusionist doesn’t insist on suspending critical faculties altogether. Uhl is fascinated by the illusion — but he still wants to analyze, to grasp how it’s done. Unlike Shyamalan, Burger doesn’t ask Giamatti, or the audience, to curl up on the couch with a milk mustache and accept whatever he chooses to spoon-feed us, no questions asked. Instead, Burger allows Uhl, and the audience, to ponder and cross-examine his illusions even as we are entertained by them.
In any case, Leopold permits himself no illusions when it comes to Sophie. He has her movements followed, and is crudely blunt about the possibility that the duchess and the illusionist may be having an affair. Before long, a shocking turn of events renders the question of Sophie’s affections moot, and the dangerous romantic triangle is reduced to a mere contest between the two men.
And then Eisenheim reinvents himself again. There was always a hint of occultism in the magician’s shows — hints about “the far corners of the world where the dark arts still hold sway,” etc. — but these always seemed mere dramatic flourishes. Now, when Eisenheim returns to the stage, the magician’s patter is gone — indeed, he speaks not a word — and the show is entirely devoted to spiritualist phenomena, to summoning the dead.
If the old Eisenheim was popular, the new — much to Leopold’s dismay — becomes a cult figure whose powers are celebrated by many as real. Uhl monitors Eisenheim’s activities with mounting concern, caught between his admiration for the showman and his suspicion that this new show is somehow part of a plot against the prince.
The moral murkiness of Eisenheim’s trajectory at this point is a bit problematic, and is not entirely alleviated when the illusionist unexpectedly issues a low-key public admission that his new show is not supernatural, and is meant only to entertain. In the end, climactic revelations raise further ambiguities about the film’s moral calculus of hero versus villain. Even so, although Eisenheim consistently remains a step ahead of Leopold orchestrates the endgame, it is the prince who is ultimately responsible for what happens in the end.
It’s worth noting that while many viewers will assume that Eisenheim’s illusions are merely movie magic that could never have been performed before a live audience, the filmmakers — working with expert magicians Ricky Jay and James Freedman — stick pretty closely to the effects and techniques that were actually available to magicians at the time.
The film’s best effects, though, are Norton’s compellingly enigmatic performance and Giamatti’s considerable sympathy and charm in a somewhat compromised role. Their scenes together are the best thing about the film, which also benefits visually from sumptuous Prague locations standing in for 1900s Vienna. Burger’s direction mirrors Norton’s performance; it is calm and unrushed, but never boring.