The Illusionist (2006) Review
Dir. Neil Burger; Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
“Everything you have seen here has been an illusion.” Filmmakers love to call attention to the meta-level of their own constructions. Many films deal with the idea of an unseen viewer, such as Nightcrawler (2014) or Rear Window (1954). Others, like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or La La Land (2016), by picking Hollywood and film as their subject, are especially self-conscious in their presentation of the doubled stage. Films about magic shows take this meta-awareness to another level. These are something of a game, where the director sneaks as many references to the audience, the stage, the viewers, and the illusion of reality as possible, all while letting the film’s viewers know that what they see is a deception. Neil Burger, director of The Illusionist (2006) is no exception. Like a magician in mid-act, Burger presents an impossibility, calls attention to the fact that it is staged, and then dares you to figure out how it was done. Unfortunately, despite all of the misdirection in the form of stunning Viennese scenery, beautiful period costumes, and a meticulous score from Philip Glass, The Illusionist doesn’t hold its viewers breathless long enough to pull off any real magic.
In the lavishly decadent Vienna of the fin-de-siècle, a budding adolescent magician by the name of Eisenheim (Edward Norton) falls in love with Sophie (Jessica Biel), Duchess von Teschen. Separated for many years, Sophie rises in the ranks until she is set for engagement to the imperious Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), heir to his elderly father’s throne. Eisenheim re-emerges after years abroad as a mysterious stage illusionist, performing nature-defying acts. His illusions, which appear to blend simple card tricks with necromancy, attract the attention of enthused audiences, as well as Vienna’s Chief Inspector, Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Uhl, believing there is something more sinister afoot, alerts Prince Leopold, whose nomological arrogance is challenged by Eisenheim’s apparent defiance of natural science. In a fit of drunken rage, Leopold murders Sophie at his hunting lodge, and Eisenheim, in his grief, devises a new illusion that will expose the Crown Prince’s cruelty and challenge his political stranglehold. Before hundreds of onlookers, Eisenheim summons all his strength and conjures the impossible: the ghost of Sophie.
Eisenheim performs in a fascinating world, in which he is the least interesting part. In the background of the Viennese landscape is a struggle between rationality and magic. Prince Leopold, dressed in military medals and an ornate sword, represents one side of that dynamic, and Eisenheim the other. Leopold is prone to outbreaks about the impracticality of everyone surrounding him. “I’m surrounded by fools. In the end, I must do everything myself,” he says. Eisenheim presents a particular challenge to the Prince, in that Leopold, who prides himself on his ability to see the science behind any phenomenon, can’t figure out the mechanisms behind Eisenheim’s illusions. Caught between these two is Uhl, who narrates the story in a voiceover at the beginning and end of the film. Uhl is a conflicted character, torn between his loyalty to the Prince––who has promised him a prominent role in the future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire––and his ideals of justice. Like Eisenheim, he has picked up some card tricks over the years; like Leopold, it is his rational mind that helps him think through the crimes he must investigate.
Uhl, played spectacularly by Giamatti, is the one true star of the film. He’s clever enough to realize that Eisenheim is something special, and exacting enough to demand that Eisenheim teach him how he does his acts. Giamatti plays Uhl as a somewhat pompous but thoroughly likeable character: he may bombard Eisenheim with demands to reveal his illusions, but his joy when the magician shows him a simple coin trick is genuine. At Eisenheim’s performances, Uhl appears to be embarrassed when it becomes obvious how enthralled he is. Giamatti also has one of the better accents in the film. It was a welcome surprise to see that Burger forewent the ubiquitous “vaguely British” accent in creating his period piece; instead, these Viennese citizens speak English with an Austrian accent. Unlike Leopold, who has to scream to capture the attention of his subjects, Uhl’s authority is of the silent variety, and this is to his (and Giamatti’s) advantage. Viewers, as well as the Austrians, simply have to look at him when he’s on-screen. The one unfortunate part of his performance is in his boring voiceover at the beginning of the film; Burger would have been better served if he had simply jumped straight into the film, rather than give Giamatti hold of the narration.
Uhl cuts a far more impressive figure than Eiseneheim, who seems to fade into the background of every scene. Part of this may be the magician’s mystique, but I found myself questioning whether Norton simply didn’t know how to play the illusionist. I’ve long considered Norton to be a good actor, but his lackluster performance as Eisenheim forced me to reconsider that idea, and I have since realized that most of my admiration for him was simply due to fond memories of the films he was in, rather than his specific role in them. On top of that, the films I did like––including Fight Club (1999), Rounders (1998), and The Italian Job (2003)––appealed entirely to my adolescent self, when I preferred car chases to poetic monologues. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good car chase; my point is that The Illusionist is a more delicate film, and would have been aided by a more delicate performer. Norton plays the role of the stage magician decently, lending an impenetrable visage to his on-stage performances, and drawing the audience into the illusion. But the problem is that Eisenheim is more than his act, he’s a character touched by a past steeped in both love and loss. Norton doesn’t play him that way, and he’s not quite believable when he professes his love to Sophie, or when delivering veiled threats to Prince Leopold. Norton’s strong suit is not in emotional pronouncements or garnering audience sympathy, but rather in his stoic, unblinking delivery. Unlike Giamatti, who exposes the nuances of Uhl’s tension, Norton plays every side of his character the same way.
It’s an interesting coincidence that The Illusionist debuted within two months of Christopher Nolan’s very similar film, The Prestige (2006). Burger’s film is about a mysterious Viennese stage magician who wows his audience with never-seen-before feats; Nolan’s film is exactly that, just with two magicians, and set in London. (They’re even set in the same decade). Films about magic deal with the difficult task of having to make their magic seem real, even with the obvious possibilities of editing and CGI that so-called “real” stage magicians don’t get. This is a problem that films like Now You See Me (2013) don’t quite figure out; the viewer is continually aware that the film is hiding something. A great magic film will draw its viewers into that elusive state of true suspension of disbelief, where you can’t quite tell if you’re being deceived or not. Those brilliant moments make you forget that the film itself is deceiving you, and The Illusionist comes close to that state in particularly fascinating moments, like when Eisenheim appears to make an orange tree grow before your very eyes. Nolan’s film is far flashier than Burger’s, and the magic itself is more impressive, but it’s in the subtler tricks, when Uhl is the only one watching, that The Illusionist shines. Unfortunately, there are too few of these moments.
The Illusionist presents Vienna as an enchanting landscape, and the film’s evocation of the tensions of Austria is one of the truly enjoyable parts. Filmed largely on location in the Czech Republic, the film recreates both the decadence and the dreariness of fin-de-siècle Central Europe: the painted carriages on dirty streets, the gilded halls and the dark forests. Certain scenes feature impressive scenery, like a repeated shot of a hallway lined with Elk antlers in the Hofburg hunting lodge. The costumes are likewise stunning: Uhl and Eisenheim’s dark suits contrast nicely with Leopold’s military uniforms and Sophie’s Victorian dresses, and the scenes in Leopold’s entertainment rooms nearly distract from Eisenheim’s illusions.
Every once in a while, I get halfway through a film and feel like I already know what’s going to happen. It’s not quite déjà vu, but rather the realization that a lot of stories are based on a few basic tropes, and that the film I’m watching explicitly follows these patterns. Storytellers seem, for instance, to love the idea of a love that transcends class, a mismatched love affair that seems to defy the typical odds and demands. We see this in nearly every genre and every era, from Cinderella (1950) to Star Wars (1977), from The Big Sleep (1946) to Pride and Prejudice (2005). Of course, this is a distillation of the intricacies of any of these stories, but it’s also fascinating to see just how pervasive this story arc is. The Illusionist hardly changes the script at all. In fact, the film’s entire screenplay is weak. In one scene, when confessing his undying love for Sophie, Eisenheim admits that he travelled the world, looking for a “real mystery,” but never found one: “I saw remarkable things, but the only mystery I never solved was why my heart couldn’t let go of you.” Leopold’s lines similarly make use of platitudes rather than powerful pronouncements; his remarks about taking control of his father’s throne sound more like something the villains from parodies like Shrek (2001) or The Princess Bride (1987) would say, than anything a living and breathing, cruel monarch would dare utter.
Like every mystery, and films about magic seem to always play within that genre, The Illusionist ends with a twist. I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve seen enough films (especially the kind with Edward Norton in them), you’ll probably have already seen it coming. This is likely a result of the weak screenwriting and a few overly lengthy scenes (like a romantic encounter that takes up several minutes and adds nothing), which gives viewers too much time to think. The banal dialogue and the overused story, moreover, disengaged me from any emotional response to the film. That’s where The Illusionist fell short: it never quite drew me into its story for long enough to stop my mind from wandering, and the twist, discovered by Uhl in the last few minutes, is much more impressive to the Inspector than to anyone else. And, as everyone knows, magic is all about capturing and redirecting the viewer’s attention.