This was the surprise hit of the summer: An old fashioned entertainment devoted to the simple pleasures of classical storytelling and character. It successfully defies its shop worn melodramatic plot and weak romance through sheer charm and an infectious delight in the magic of moviemaking itself. This is a movie made by a filmmaker who is clearly in love with his medium.
Depicting magic onscreen has always been a peculiar problem. Since the motion picture itself is perhaps the ultimate illusion, the magician’s power to suspend disbelief is compromised. There can be no “illusion” when there is no objective reality. Especially when a filmmaker can twist that reality in more ways than simple sleight of hand. Writer/director Neil Burger (Interview With The Assassin) seems to have a strong grasp on this problem and makes no excuses for the dazzling tricks he presents with both a sly wit and high style. Many have been done in-camera or with the aid of the computer but it doesn’t really matter since this is a movie about a magician, not a filmed magic show.
The story is set in Vienna circa 1900 and revolves around the efforts of the enigmatic Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) to save his childhood love, Countess Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel) from the vile clutches of her moustache twirling fiancée’ the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). He needs her assistance in his plot to overthrow his father and will use any means necessary to insure her compliance. Eisenheim is a traveling magician and his powers may or may not be supernatural. It falls onto Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the Prince’s somewhat reluctant Gestapo-like Policeman, to learn the truth. In the end, Eisenheim pulls the most amazing illusion of all.
This is a very strange film to categorize. Is it a Historical drama? A mystery-thriller? A romance? A tale of political intrigue? A ghost story? The answer is “Yes” to all of the above and yet none of those elements really sit comfortably with each other. The romance is hardly romantic and the mystery often far from mysterious. Yet, somehow the film itself creates an air of romance and mystery outside the narrative. Burger has a feel for the time and place; not as it ever was, but how it might be seen through the rosier spectacles of memory. Or perhaps through our collective memories of the silver screen. Aided by the pulsing, dramatic score by Phillip Glass and the flickering, almost silent-era styled cinematography by Dick Pope and Burger creates his own powerful illusion: The illusion that he’s made a great film. This is no small talent, as many great directors from Hitchcock to Buñuel have made their careers with cinematic styles that can still entrance an audience weaned on lazy literary content.
The cast bring their own charm to the film. Norton, Sewell, and Giamatti seem to be drawing upon vast resources of energy with the intent to chew the scenery around them. Instead, they spend the film holding that energy back to create tension and release it in more effective moments. Jessica Biel has a somewhat underwritten character, yet is surprisingly fine and quite likable in the role. However, it’s Giamatti’s Inspector Uhl who is perhaps the finest of all. Giamatti is so good in the role, you almost wish he could continue to investigate mysteries in a weekly series like some kind of Viennese Hercule Poirot. This is a startling departure for the actor who is normally seen in roles within a smaller, more contemporary range. Here, he invests his eccentric character with such warmth and childlike innocence that effectively subverts the narrative role of the cold interrogator.
In many ways, the relationship between Uhl and Eisenheim is the very heart of the film. Both men have risen to a certain prominence from lower stations in life, but Uhl believes that the son of a butcher can only rise so far while the somewhat more worldly Eisenheim sees no barriers for himself. Uhl develops a great deal of respect for Eisenheim which inspires him to prove to himself that he really isn’t “completely corrupt” after all.
The Illusionisthas its share of twists and turns but, oddly, none of these are very impressive or shocking. Most viewers who have seen their share of thrillers will have most of it figured out. As for Eisenheim’s “tricks,” many of them seem to defy any explanation known to science. How he achieves such effects without a pact with the devil is never clearly explained. This would be the death knell for most films, but once again The Illusionist succeeds in spite of these flaws. With it’s never ending supply of fake beards, moustaches and dry ice fog, the film is simply fun. You can waste time arguing about the hows and the whys when the end credits roll. It’s all just an illusion, or really just a movie.
The DVD has been released in two separate versions, one full frame and the other widescreen, both featuring audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. The additional features present the usual EPK stuff in the form of a behind the scenes documentary, The Making of The Illusionist” and a wholly unnecessary talk with Jessica Biel, Jessica Biel on The Illusionist” as an extra to itself. Why we needed to hear from the actress in a separate interview is mysterious but perhaps not to the teenage boys who will rent this film. These two extra features equal about 6 minutes of running time, so clearly they are lacking in real content.
Besides the requisite theatrical trailer, the main extra is the audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger who goes into extreme detail regarding the production of the film and the many technical and historical elements that required attention. He isn’t the most exciting speaker but at least he is quite thorough. One of the odd details he points out is the way Biel was told to lift up her dress when she climbed up stairs. Apparently, a “lady” of the time used one hand to do this. If she used two, she was clearly a prostitute. I’ll never look at a period film the same way again.