Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti
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“He has tricked you. It is all an illusion!” “Perhaps there is truth in it.” That’s Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) assessing the works of Eisenheim The Illusionist (Edward Norton), who wows Vienna in the late 1800s. Neil Burger’s drama brings to life that period with gorgeous detail, and anchors it in a forbidden romance, between Eisenheim and the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel). But it’s in that duality of possible reactions – one cynical and bitter, the other quietly amazed – that The Illusionist finds its cinematic magic.
Eisenheim and the Duchess were childhood friends, sweethearts who met in secret, despite their disapproving parents. Even then, he was taken with magic, but when she asked him to make them both disappear, after their families found them out, his tricks were painfully highlighted as just that: a child’s game. Fast forward 15 years and the transformation is remarkable: Eisenheim is a grown man, and his illusions are so effective that they defy that very label. So when Leopold volunteers her to be Eisenheim’s helper in a packed-out theatre, and they recognise each other, the magician appears to continue a decades-long quest to answer her plea.
Their renewed acquaintance, of course, does not go unnoticed, and so begins a fraught to and fro between the Duchess, Eisenheim and Leopold. Such constructs should feel tired and overly familiar, but Burger’s script gives each performer the chance to flesh out their character to more than the cliched corner of a triangle. Biel’s Duchess is as much agent of her own fate as she is a desirable former flame. Sewell’s Crown Prince is superbly realised as a coward who’s childish and paranoid, disguised as a coward who’s violent and quick-to-anger. Between them, Norton is impeccable; his pinpoint eyes and steady, unemotional voice are an ideal fit for a man who may or may not channel the occult, his elusive ambiguity matched by his magnetic confidence.
The resulting friction is delicious to witness, as Eisenheim becomes a rebellious figure in Viennese society. The fun lies not only in the earnest, illicit romance between him and the Duchess, or in Leopold’s petty determination to expose this threat to his reign as a fraud, but also in the underlying fact that we don’t know whether Eisenheim is doing this intentionally or not. How much is he attempting to take down Leopold? Or is he merely trying to whisk the Duchess from under Leopold’s nose?
As tensions rise, his act darkens, to the point where he’s apparently summoning spirits from beyond the grave. They ultimately wind up implicating Leopold, even though they never explicitly say so, and Burger’s script delights in the way it balances what people want to see and hear and what they actually do. The political and religious themes that the plot raises – and the echoes of actual historical events involving an Austrian Crown Prince – are touched upon, but only lightly, allowing us to believe in them if we so choose.
And it’s that quality that defines this adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story. Cinema itself is one big magic trick, thanks to CGI effects and post-production trickery, but storytelling is also an illusion in its own right, crafting one version of a truth to misdirect from another. The Illusionist leans towards that latter reality, using Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography to produce flickering mirages that recall the early days of projection, and otherwise relying on Philip Glass’ mellifluous score to weave a compelling spell.
What stunts and gimmicks we do witness are designed with an understated grace and elegance – where a film such as Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige rooted itself in the grim mechanics and personal sacrifice required to maintain an illusion, The Illusionist is content to sit on the other side of the curtain and allow things to be conjured up for us. We see an orange tree grow from nothing in seconds, mirror images kill their own reflections, and even a riff on the legend of King Arthur. (Eddie Marsan is on scene-stealing form as Eisenheim’s manager, who sells Eisenheim’s gifts convincingly as a miraculous force of nature.)
But as dazzling as these illusions are, and as omniscient as their conjuror seems to be, our narrator is always Chief Inspector Uhl, and Giamatti plays him with just the right balance of corruption and innocence; he’s far from omniscient and spends the story trying to piece it all together. But on some level, even the most logical, serious person secretly wants to believe in magic. And so Giamatti’s wide-eyed role, quite unlike anything else the chameleonic character actor has done in his career, becomes our window onto this enchanting period drama, a folk tale that is happy to let its simple legend unfold on its own terms, and leave us wondering just how much of it was true.
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