Vienna, 1900. Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a master illusionist (a/k/a magician), returns to Vienna from years abroad, studying and honing his craft. Audiences love him, but the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the restive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, takes a more skeptical view of the newcomer. Sitting in the audience during one of Eisenheim's performances, Leopold offers up his lover and future bride, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), to one of Eisenheim's tricks. In mid-performance, Sophie recognizes Eisenheim as a long lost, childhood friend. Due to class differences, their relationship ended abruptly with Sophie banished to her family’s foreboding castle and the young Eisenheim leaving Vienna for parts unknown.
The possessive, obsessive Leopold invites Eisenheim to his exclusive hunting lodge where Eisenheim will give a private performance for Leopold, Sophie, and other members of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Leopold hopes to publicly expose Eisenheim's secrets. Equally arrogant, Eisenheim mocks Leopold to his audience, instantly making Leopold his enemy. Leopold sends Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the opportunistic chief inspector of the Vienna police to take down Eisenheim. Meanwhile, Eisenheim and Sophie restart their romance in secret. Leopold plots against Eisenheim, Eisenheim plots against Leopold, with Sophie as the prize and Chief Inspector Uhl forced to choose between career advancement (e.g., the position of Chief of Police) and his conscience.
It seems, though, like Burger couldn't decide who the central character should be in The Illusionist. While Eisenheim gets most of the screen time and is thus the default candidate for the role, Burger also gives substantial screen time to Chief Inspector Uhl. While that's generally not enough to make Uhl the central character, Burger's head-scratching decision to give Uhl, but not Eisenheim, privileged voice over narration at the opening and close of The Illusionist and points in between offers little in the way of insight, while overemphasizing Giamatti's strained vocal performance.
Having The Illusionist unfold as an extended flashback compounds the problem, since moviegoers see far more than Uhl ever experiences directly. We generally know more than Uhl does, even as what we know turns out that Burger is taking his cues from Eisenheim and overturning audience expectations about where The Illusionist is going. Yes, that means Burger has more than one conjuring trick up his sleeve. Unfortunately, the rapid-fire series of revelations that come near the end come at the expense of believability (while covering up plot holes or dubious behavior by the central characters).
Not all is bad with The Illusionist, though. Despite mannered performances, Norton and Giamatti are always watchable as co-leads. Norton is at his best when he's in tortured artist mode, as his magic act takes a dark toward the occult late in the film. Few actors do "intensity" like Norton can (which makes him one of the better actors of his generation). Giamatti overcomes his underwritten character to give a more-than-credible performance. Jessica Biel has less to do besides look lovingly over at Norton's character or act anguished at their potential separation. No one, of course, can argue with Biel's physical charms or easy manner in front of the cameras. Production wise, Burger shows he knows how to put a striking visual composition together. He even goes as far as including film techniques from the silent era (e.g., irises in and out, darkened edges) that, while anachronistic, clue moviegoers into Eisenheim's feats of magic.
Historical Note: Burger likely drew inspiration for The Illusionist from historical events, circa 1889. The so-called "Mayerling Incident" involved the mysterious death of the emperor's son, the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and Rudolf's young lover, the Baroness Mary Vetsera at the royal family's hunting lodge in Mayerling. Rudolf's father, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 68 years, dying in 1916, two years before the end of World War I.
© Mel Valentin, 18th August, 2006
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