From its baroque title sequence and gilded protagonists, to its majestic Philip Glass score, The Illusionist feels a little like Masterpiece Theater. Indeed, this period piece covers some familiar ground: royal intrigue, unrequited love, tragedy, and redemption. Shot in half-light, with rich, sepia tones, and a cropped frame, the film’s distressed look is intentional. Those qualities, combined with a heady score and authentic Czech locations, help cinematographer Dick Pope (Nicholas Nickleby) create the illusion of antique atmosphere. But fear not, for The Illusionist is far less buttoned than the usual costume drama, its themes coalescing in a film that occupies a place somewhere between Merchant Ivory and M. Night Shyamalan.
The story centers on a young, Austrian peasant named Edward, who becomes enamored with the art of magic in turn-of-the-century Vienna. His quiet demeanor and unorthodox pursuit catch the eye of the young aristocrat Sophie – a girl whose own future is predestined by her family pedigree. Despite their attraction, the disparate stations of these childhood friends forbid them from seeing one another romantically, and eventually the two are chased apart for good. “Make us disappear,” pleads the would-be Duchess, before being torn away from her young love.
Driven by anguish to control his own destiny, the boy leaves Austria to conquer the magic that has thus eluded him. When he returns, 15 years later, the handsome and mysterious Eisenheim (Edward Norton, Fight Club) is an individual possessed by his craft; a renowned stage magician whose masterful illusions enchant peasant and royal alike. His glare scorches with a dark confidence, behind those impenetrable eyes lay the wisdom of a man who has lived beyond the walls of provincial Vienna. He is an illusionist both in trade and practice; not just as a master magician, but also as a reinvented man of means, suddenly equal with the aristocrats who once refused him.
It’s difficult to tell if the magic we see onscreen is authentic; after all, movies, by their very nature, are manipulative. Some of the tricks are clearly computer generated, but director Neil Burger (whose only previous work was 2002’s pseudo-documentary Interview with an Assassin) shows restraint, eschewing dazzling effects for a more organic feel. As such, the illusions serve more as a vehicle for the story, engrossing viewers by virtue of their mystery, rather than their wizardry.
We’re meant to appreciate Eisenheim’s command over an audience, more than the magic itself. “Where does power flow from,” asks Eisenheim, “The soul, destiny, or divine right?” Set in a time when aging monarchies had begun splintering under nascent fascism, The Illusionist comes to capture the old-world superstitions that would suffer under the sterility of European empiricism.
These supernatural provocations draw the attention of Eisenheim’s lost love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), and her jealous fiancé, the crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Sophie is sublimely beautiful, with innocence and youthful wonder that permeate. We’re spared the patrician clichés, instead charmed by a girl for whom privilege would sooner be cast aside for the chance at happiness. “You’re lucky to have broken free,” the Duchess tells Eisenheim. Biel admits in the DVD interview to having chased the role of Sophie, a refreshing departure for someone who most recently starred in popcorn projects like Blade: Trinity, and Stealth. Unfortunately, she is relegated to playing the demure damsel, while Norton and Sewell chew all the scenery.
Perceived as a threat — as much for his unwillingness to placate the crown as for his flirtations with the Duchess — Eisenheim is again persecuted by the powers-that-be. “Tricking versus enlightening, which is the more noble pursuit?” asks the crown prince, caustically. The brooding Rufus Sewell (Dark City) imbues Leopold with a menace that simmers. Often typecast as the baddie, Sewell nonetheless reveals the vulnerability of his tortured, power-mad prince. His savage hold on power as illusory as any of Eisenheim’s tricks, Sewell delivers his best scene in a Shakespearian grip of hopeless paranoia.
When Eisenheim abandons his smoke and mirrors for the darker business of conjuring spirits, the people of Vienna are galvanized. What starts as novel enthusiasm for the magician’s stagecraft, grows into a spiritual fervor. Incensed, Leopold unleashes Vienna’s Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) in an effort to publicly excoriate Eisenheim. The earnest, ever-engaging Giamatti (Cinderella Man) brings bittersweet complexity to a man intent on unmasking the truth, even as his own illusory status catches up with him.
Though he serves Leopold at the edge of aristocracy, the judicious Uhl tacitly admits to being in a lower caste, one that prevents him from ever enjoying the prestige afforded the elites. In Uhl’s eyes, Eisenheim – despite all his legerdemain – shows true nobility, while the crown prince, infallible heir to the throne, can hardly conceal his political deceit. Surrounded by illusion, Uhl somehow manages to underestimate the wills of both men, blinded by both his affection for the magician, and his loyalty to the crown.
Giamatti and Norton – both Yale grads, and Oscar nominees – are vividly expressive, method actors. Yet even they struggle when affecting an Austrian accent. Giamatti is the more subtle and convincing of the two, his voice staggered in a passable Teutonic cadence. We can forgive Norton’s uneven attempt – which he all but abandons at times – for in its place is a character of undeniable mystique. He continues to surprise, with an intensity that belies his boyish looks. Norton’s steely eyes and adroit delivery complement the chip that Eisenheim bears on his shoulder. He is an actor whose cool, deliberate intelligence masks a bitter adversary lurking just beneath the surface.
The consummate artist, Norton reportedly trained extensively at sleight-of-hand to minimize the need for CGI. Unfortunately for fans, the DVD features are spare, with only a six-minute Making of The Illusionist teaser. Absent the expected documentary on magic, or even an historical featurette on Habsburg-era Vienna, we miss the chance to gain further perspective on this intriguing world.
Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Millhauser, The Illusionist feels appropriately compact, at just over 90 minutes. It’s an elegant and satisfying ride that might remind some of a Shyamalan picture. While Burger lacks that director’s seasoned command behind the lens, he subsequently approaches his work with greater honesty, avoiding the indulgences that have come to mark Shyamalan’s work of late. Burger concentrates on telling a good story, instead of contriving the perfect twist.
These days, it’s uncommon to find an American movie like The Illusionist faring so well. Most period dramas (e.g., Hollywoodland) don’t register sexy box office numbers, and fail to endure even on video. But The Illusionist has legs. Suffocated by the blockbusters of late summer, this enchanting fable has since crept back onto viewers’ queues and critics’ top 10 lists. It’s an unpretentious, art house picture with strong crossover casting, and a smart script. One thing’s for sure, fairytales never go out of style. Are the phantoms real? Will the magician and his forbidden love slip away? Whether Eisenheim conjures magic, or illusion, audiences will follow. We want to believe, and sometime that’s enough.