Proposing an “examination of time,” the mysterious magician called Eisenheim (Edward Norton) pronounces it elusive. “We measure it and mark it,” he tells his audience, “but we cannot defy it.” And with that, he appears to plant an orange seed in a pot on stage and get it to grow into a plant with a wave of his fingers. When his late 19th-century Viennese audience oohs, properly thrilled mystification, he executes some other tricks as well, including a set of butterflies flitting about with a blue handkerchief.
The Illusionist proposes that such performances are as much a function of viewers’ desires as any stagy machinations. Eisenheim is a study in moral sobriety and instruction: he means to “entertain,” as he says repeatedly, but he is also, in some minds, the representative of a potential “spiritual republic.” His version of time is compelling, for instance, mostly because he puts it into concrete-seeming terms. When he goes on, in later performances, to intimate a communion with the dead, in the form of shimmering ghosts who stand alongside him on stage, Eisenheim appears to be manipulating time, managing an illusion of rather grand proportions.
Based on Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” Neil Burger’s movie takes up some of the themes that concerned his previous film, Interview with an Assassin, that is, the indistinctions between truth and lies, the different frames imposed on narrative by clever storytellers and invested listeners. Here, the primary storyteller is a police inspector, Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who remembers for you Eisenheim’s life, as he knows it. That he is employed by the cruel Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and nurses some minor ambition of his own (he is, as he puts it, “the son of a butcher”), means that Uhl’s account is not only incomplete, but also skewed.
This even as he performs as the usual skeptical detective, conducting an investigation into what seems a murder. Repeatedly, his limited understanding and recounting makes The Illusionist obviously subjective: as a story, it is not entirely trustworthy. As you make your own interpretation of visible events and voiceover narration, you are likely to be a step ahead of Uhl—the big “reveal” at film’s end is no surprise at all. It is, instead, the frankly rudimentary fulfillment of plot points laid out rather clearly at the start.
This suggests that the plot is the least important aspect of Burger’s film. Instead, and more in keeping with the intrigues described by Eisenheim on stage, its investigations of time, power, and romance, as specifically political constructs, are more compelling than the breathy love story and clunkily CGIed magic tricks. If its allegory isn’t subtle, it is timely: those who seem authorities are illusionists, administering by entertainments.
As Uhl tells it (in flashback), Eisenheim begins life much like he had, humbly. Edward Ambramovitz (Aaron Johnson) is the sensitive son of a cabinetmaker tormented by patrician children (one of whom calls him a “mugswipe,” a decidedly colorful way to designate his meanness). Yearning for what he cannot have, Edward falls in love with a beautiful girl from a titled family, Sophie. He charms her with his interest in magic and ornate devices (he fashions for her a trick wooden locket with his picture in it), but because she’s royalty, their friendship, even as it develops into young love, is forbidden. After they are dragged apart one night, he disappears, leaving Sophie to follow her fate, that is, to be married off in a royal arrangement.
Edward comes to Vienna as Eisenheim 15 years later, where Sophie is a duchess (now played by Jessica Biel, who has apparently fulfilled her own ambition, to play costumed ladies as well as action babes), less than happily affianced to Leopold. Odious in ways to make his romantic overthrow a foregone conclusion, the prince is twitchy and oppressive, seeing Sophie as part of his plan to consolidate power across international borders. It’s late 1890s, and even as the map of Europe is changing—and WWI looms in the near future—Leopold imagines he might be imperial, in the crudest sense.
The prince, though self-obsessed, notices enough to be jealous immediately of Sophie’s strange attraction to the magician. (Her entrancement parallels that of his subjects, which exacerbates the prince’s insecurity about his popularity.) During an evening’s show, she volunteers to “assist,” donning a monumental red cape and hood. She interacts with her seeming mirror image, leading to a faint on stage and gasps from the crowd. During the course of the performance, Sophie and Edward recognize one another, and so, their passion is rekindled.
Assigned to look into the showman’s past, Uhl digs up a few apparent facts, but his report does little to soothe the prince’s anxiety. Though Sophie warns him not to anger Leopold, Edward embarrasses the prince during another performance by intimating he’s not a rightful heir to his father’s throne. At that point, their showdown becomes inevitable; given the prince’s brutality, you know how it will end, even though the route is roundabout. Specifically, it involves Sophie’s bloody murder, a case that Uhl investigates and describes in some detail.
Uhl’s narration rather endearingly limits our perspective to his (he dutifully reports to the prince that rumors are circulating that Eisenheim acquired his powers by selling his soul to the devil, further agitating Leopold). As her sensational death (stabbed by a sword) occurs following a tryst between the reunited lovers, the prince looks like the culprit, though no one dares accuse him. At this point, Uhl’s story becomes a moral dilemma for him, as he seeks a place in the prince’s evolving empire, but also knows his capacity for betrayal and violence. And so, the right thing, though plain to see, is also difficult to do. Perhaps Leopold’s description of the world’s workings is accurate; perhaps morality is irrelevant.
Aided considerably by Philip Glass’ typically swirling score, The Illusionist uses Uhl’s skepticism to offset Edward’s inscrutability and Sophie’s passion, not to mention Leopold’s increasing irrationality and malice. As viewers’ stand-in, Uhl delineates his choices in terms of what seems “real” or “illusion.” Being the designated skeptic, Uhl is not given to believe in the latter, though he appreciates the “entertainment.”
Edward’s own conception of illusion is increasingly rooted in “time,” though its form morphs following the loss of Sophie, a loss he suffers mightily and publicly, discovering her pale corpse floating in a river as the police look on ineffectively. Now even more melancholy than before, Edward amps up the darkness of his show. Like Freud by way of Willy Wonka, he changes up his show, firing his local (Viennese) assistant and brings in exotic foreigners, here “Oriental” men in black. Their very presence enhances the “alien effect” as Edward starts summoning ghosts onto the stage each night. The citizens of Vienna are delighted and afraid, while the prince is furious at what is plainly his loss of control over the plebes.
The Illusionist‘s melodrama is appropriately trite; at last, it makes a predictable point about true, transcendent love. And yet it maintains focus on the illusion, which assumes another sort of truth.