Which holds more power, the belief that a born noble can rule a monarchy or that a poor commoner can accomplish real magic?
Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) has come to Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is infatuated with Eisenheim’s magic act, but when word reaches the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) that Eisenheim’s celebrity has begun to overshadow his own, Uhl is sent to investigate the illusionist. Committed to proving Eisenheim a fraud for his own satisfaction, Leopold even offers his own bride-to-be Sophie (Jessica Biel) as part of an act only to accidentally awaken a long-lost childhood relationship between Eisenheim and Sophie. When a tragedy takes Sophie from both the illusionist and her prince, Eisenheim emerges from despair with a new act of conjuring restless spirits to appear onstage, but this time the word ‘illusionist’ is eerily missing from the theater marquee.
The core of The Illusionist is a forbidden romance between commoner and noble, an all-time favorite from the days of monarchies. In execution, however, the plot glosses over the whys and whens and instead revels in discovering the how, so the romance is pushed aside for the mystery and intrigue. Told from Giamatti’s character’s point of view, the investigation begins when Eisenheim first appears on stage and ends when Giamatti finally reveals his conclusions. Much of the film shadows Eisenheim’s act and the expectations of the day; audiences weren’t told what the illusion was to be, and often upon seeing its conclusion, audiences were left to wonder if what they saw was real or not.
Edward Norton amazes even as he draws sympathy as the masterful yet sorrowful illusionist, and Jessica Biel puts her weapons away (Blade 3, Stealth) to portray a modern woman shackled by the rules of older age. There is enough chemistry between the two to motivate the plot, but Paul Giamatti comes dangerously close to going too far over the top as Chief Inspector Uhl, especially in light of everything his character stands to lose in the outcome. Rufus Sewell, however, has done his role so many times that he looks as though he sleeping through it, and, sad to say, it does hurt the overall effect of the film’s conclusion; are we supposed to hate him or feel badly for him?
There are a few nitpicks that hang from the neck of the film, but fortunately none enough to bring it crashing down. The first again is the casting of Rufus Sewell as the obvious villain; since Dark City, characters he’s portrayed have been synonymous with corrupt nobility (A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro) and are certainly beginning to blur together as the same character. Secondly, the music seems appropriate at first until you realize its the same three music cues over and over, when then start to sound like a television diamond commercial. Lastly, for a movie set in turn-of-the-century illusion, too much of Eisenheim’s act seems to rely upon twenty-first century computer animation; to paraphrase the Devil from The Exorcist, it’s much too vulgar a display of power to be believed.
The Illusionist is a good film for a date and interesting enough for fans of magic, but the previews for the upcoming film The Prestige all make Eisenheim seem more like a cinematic appetizer. Honestly, if your going to have a rival in the illusionist trade, another master magician sounds a great deal more sinister than someone who knows nothing of the art. Enjoy the snack.
(a two and a half skull out of four recommendation)