The Illusionist takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna, where a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) applies his trade to enthusiastic audiences on a nightly basis. His tricks are so good that they almost seem otherworldly. For part of his act, he plants a seed and makes an orange tree suddenly grow on stage. Itís a show that gives people their moneyís worth.
In a flashback sequence, we learn that, as a teenager, Eisenheim used his skills to impress Sophia, a young woman in a higher social class. She was forbidden to be with him, so they snuck off whenever possible, only to repeatedly be caught. Finally, they are pulled apart for good, but not before Eisenheim can give her a special locket with a trick opening. As an adult, Sophia (Jessica Biel) is the girlfriend of Viennaís Crown Prince, Leopold (Rufus Sewell). He has a reputation for being physically abusive to his women, and he also harbors plans to overthrow his own father to take control of the country.
Leopold, not aware of Sophiaís past connection to Eisenheim, fancies himself more clever than the magician. He invites Eisenheim to the castle for a command performance, fully intending to humiliate him by figuring out all the tricks and revealing their workings to the crowd. It doesnít work. His anger over this increases exponentially when he learns that Sophia is clandestinely meeting up with her old friend after they are reunited when she catches his show. After all these years, the two are still deeply attracted to each other. Sophia plans to leave Leopold to be with Eisenheim, and he plans to prevent her from doing so.
Hereís where we have to stop. Iíve described less than an hour of The Illusionist and to go any further would be to spoil some significant developments. It would also, unfortunately, fail to give you a sense of what the film is really about. All I can safely say is that Leopold assigns Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to find out how the magic is done. This becomes a priority when Leopold realizes that Eisenheim is trying to use a mystical new routine to foil everything the Crown Prince wants to accomplish. If his magic is real (or if people believe it is), the consequences for Leopold could be disastrous. Essentially, the magician and the corrupt royalty spend the second hour trying to outwit each other.
There is an intriguing moral component to the story. Chief Inspector Uhl knows full well that Leopold is dishonest, yet he turns a blind eye under the lingering promise of a promotion. He protects the reputation of a bad guy to get something he wants. At the same time, Uhl starts to be persuaded by the implications of Eisenheimís actions. If the guy is so intent on righting the wrongs created by Leopold, then perhaps there is a greater good to be served. Uhl starts to look at things more closely while still trying to avoid provoking his superior. Paul Giamatti turns in another brilliant performance in the role. He plays the pivotal character, as we experience the story through his eyes. Like Leopold, Uhl desperately wants to know how the magic tricks are accomplished, yet his intentions are far less sinister. Giamatti does a splendid job of playing this guy who teeters on the line that separates personal gain from righteousness.
I love the battle of wills that goes on in The Illusionist. Although Leopold is, at some level, a standard movie bad guy, he is played with sufficient menace by Sewell. You can feel his anger grow every time the magician outsmarts him. Itís an interesting portrayal of evil accumulating in a personís soul. As Eisenheim, Norton intentionally maintains an air of mystery. The story dangles the possibility that his act is not simply a performance. That idea is crucial to the plotís mystery, so the actor has to make us care about the character without ever fully knowing him. Norton totally achieves this. If Eisenheim is a bit of an enigma, we never once doubt that he is using illusion to maintain the purity of his love for Sophia.
There is, naturally, a plot twist that is not revealed until the final moments of the film. Truth be told, it isnít that hard to foresee in advance. The details remain sketchy until the end, but the twist itself is generally apparent. However, that doesnít at all detract from its power. Too many movies throw in plot twists simply to prove that they can pull the rug out from under you. They are little more than cheap shots. The twist in The Illusionist has much more resonance; in fact, itís the movieís reason for being in the first place. Even if you see it coming (and you probably will), there is great delight in the way itís revealed.
Writer/director Neil Burger performs a little magic behind the camera himself. If you look closely, you will see that one of Eisenheimís tricks foreshadows a key event that occurs later on. There are other almost- subliminal details that pay off rewardingly. Burgerís control over the tone and atmosphere are nearly perfect. He creates an on-screen world where magic has a physical presence, where anything is truly possible.
The Illusionist is cleverly conceived and executed. Itís the kind of movie that absorbs you, holding you in its spell for nearly two hours. Thereís a universal truth about love possessing its own special form of magic. This is definitely a story about that idea. Eisenheim loves magic, but he loves Sophia most of all. That love drives his every action, and what he does may just constitute the greatest act of magic in the world
( 1/2 out of four)
The Illusionist is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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