About an hour into Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist”, a riled up magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) confronts police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) with this line, “Are you completely corrupt?” when Uhl refuses to believe Eisenheim’s accusations regarding a powerful figure. To which Uhl coolly replies, “No, not completely.” And just like that statement, “The Illusionist” is not completely anything, and yet it is everything — parts fantasy, romance, mystery, and for much of its second half, some creepy supernatural stuff. And in the end, you’ll ask yourself: “Was it even a movie at all?” I don’t know, I still can’t figure that part out yet.
“The Illusionist” stars the versatile Edward Norton (“Fight Club”) as Eisenheim, a magician (or “illusionist”) in 1900s Vienna, Austria. As a younger man, Eisenheim fell in love with the beautiful Sophie (Jessica Biel), who is hopelessly beyond his meager social standing — he’s a carpenter’s son, she a Duchess in waiting. But friendship blossoms nevertheless between the two, and eventually, romance. After their attempt to run away together is thwarted, Eisenheim disappears, returning 15 years later as a master magician. It isn’t long before Sophie re-enters Eisenheim’s life, but unfortunately she’s on the arms of Austria’s Emperor in waiting, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Complications, as they say, ensues.
There is a lot about “The Illusionist” that probably shouldn’t work very well on film. Or at least, shouldn’t work as well on the big screen as it probably did in prose form. To writer/director Neil Burger’s credit, the film does in fact work quite wonderfully despite a number of very “out there” moments. Eisenheim’s “tricks” are probably the film’s most fantastical element, as the man seems to be able to do anything, from simple feats of magic like the coin trick to conjuring dead spirits by sheer force of will. Of course all of this begs to be taken on good faith, and viewers who are unable to afford the film this suspension of disbelief will simply have unresolved problems with the movie.
“The Illusionist” works precisely because it is so hard to categorize. While it pretends to be a romance about Eisenheim and Sophie’s forbidden love, it is in fact simply a magic trick in itself. To wit: the film’s first hour is the set-up, with the pay off coming at the end. In-between, there are a lot of suspense and mystery, although the seasoned moviegoer should be able to figure out some of the film’s twists and turns, though by all means not nearly enough to warrant a “Eureka!” moment. And of course nothing can explain Eisenheim’s many tricks, in particular his seemingly very real ability to conjure dead spirits. How did he do it? Was it all an illusion? Should we even bother asking?
With a cast consisting of Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell (who plays slimy villain roles like nobody’s business), “The Illusionist” is in good hands. Even Jessica Biel (“London”), not exactly known for her thespian abilities, acquits herself surprisingly well. Then again, while the Sophie character figures prominently into the film’s storyline, Sophie herself doesn’t have very much to do. It’s a nice role for Biel, who has chosen wisely to underplay the character, perhaps a little unsure of her affected accent. I am still surprised she had it in here to play Sophie; after all, you don’t immediately think “Jessica Biel” when you think “costume drama”.
As for Norton, at this point in his still-young career, it would only be a surprise if he didn’t deliver a top-notch performance. It’s somewhat unfair to simply dismiss Norton’s work as just “another solid Norton performance”, but the man has been so good in so many movies that taking him for granted will come easily to most people. To be sure, while he’s good, Norton is oftentimes outshined by the tricks Eisenheim pulls out of his sleeves. But that’s not really Norton’s fault; he simply played what was asked of him. Actually, it’s to writer Steven Millhauser’s credit that he’s come up with so many, as the kids would say, “cool” stuff for Eisenheim to do.
But my favorite character has to be Paul Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Uhl. A likeable man who, as he tells Eisenheim, is “not completely corrupt”, Uhl develops an interesting kinship with Eisenheim. They are similar men, having risen from their lowly given stations (Uhl is the son of a butcher) to positions of some prominence. Uhl’s future hinges on Leopold’s takeover of the Emperor’s chair, and he is hesitant to muddy it up, even though he, we suspect, would rather side with Eisenheim against the vindictive Crown Prince. One of Giamatti’s best moments come early in the film, as Uhl must walk through Leopold’s hallway, which is covered in animal trophies. The look on Uhl’s face as he braves the scene tells us everything we need to know about the man: Yes, he wants the prestige that comes with being Leopold’s lackey, but the price just might be too high for a man of his principals.
It’s a given that “The Illusionist” cheats heavily when it comes to its central mystery. The “surprise twist” itself is relatively easy to guess, but how we get there will never be fully answered, because frankly, it doesn’t really matter. As mentioned, “The Illusionist” is a magic trick — we are set up by the magician as he weaves his story, all the while the hidden machinations of the trick is going on in the background. Then, when the trick is performed, we are amazed and oooh and awww at the payoff. Later, post-trick, we will spend some time thinking about what has happened, how the trick was done, but we will never figure it out. And you know what? We won’t mind one bit. It was a neat trick, and it had a heck of a payoff, and that will be more than enough compensation for our willing ignorance of the trick’s construction.
Neil Burger (director) / Neil Burger (screenplay), Steven Millhauser (short story Eisenheim the Illusionist)
CAST: Edward Norton …. Eisenheim
Paul Giamatti …. Chief Inspector Uhl
Jessica Biel …. Sophie
Rufus Sewell …. Crown Prince Leopold
Eddie Marsan …. Josef Fischer
Jake Wood …. Jurka
Tom Fisher …. Willigut
Aaron Johnson …. Young Eisenheim
Eleanor Tomlinson …. Young Sophie