Edward Norton as Eisenheim
Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl
Jessica Biel as Sophie
Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold
Eddie Marsan as Josef Fischer
Jake Wood as Jurka
Tom Fisher as Willigut
Aaron Johnson as Young Eisenheim
Eleanor Tomlinson as Young Sophie
Karl Johnson as Doctor/Old Man
Erich Redman as Count Rainer
Brian Caspe as Eisenheim’s Assistant
Ellen Savaria as Mrs. Uhl
Directed by Neil Burger
Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” is a fascinating journey of intrigue that owes a lot to its distinctive look and feel, as well as to the fine performances and script. Clearly, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) has come to Vienna, creating a stir among the people, especially Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) who assigns the head of his security force, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to investigate Eisenheim’s stage show and debunk him as a fraud. When someone close to the Prince is found dead, Eisenheim is suspected, causing Uhl to question whether Eisenheim’s stage show is just an act or if it’s some form of supernatural witchcraft.
If a period drama set in turn of the century Vienna complete with costumes, horse-drawn carriages and the like doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you may want to set aside those period biases for Neil Burger’s sophomore feature, an adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story. Although many of the customary period piece traditions are in place, by its very nature, it owes more to Sherlock Holmes and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” than anything ever put on paper by Jane Austen.
The movie opens simply by showing Edward Norton’s character sitting on a stage in complete silence for what turns into an uncomfortable amount of time. The camera then turns to show that he’s sitting on a stage with a rapt audience riveted by this bit of performance art. He’s quickly arrested, presumably for charging people to watch him on stage sitting on a chair, but like everything else in this film, there’s more to this scene than meets the eye. This is, in fact, Eisenheim the Illusionist, who left Vienna and traveled the earth seeking out all of its magics after being separated from his childhood love Sophie due to their differences in class. The movie flashes back a few months, as the two childhood friends are reunited on stage when Sophie’s fiance, the Crown Prince Leopold, volunteers her for a mystical illusion involving a mirror. Fascinated by Eisenheim’s act, Leopold asks for a private performance so that he can learn the secrets of Eisenheim’s illusions. Instead, Leopold is humiliated in front of other royals, so he commissions Chief Inspector Uhl to keep an eye on the magician. Uhl himself is intrigued by Eisenheim’s illusions, particularly the finale which involves an orange tree growing in front of the audience, but he also feels the need to do his duty even if he questions the prince’s anger-driven motives.
One thing immediately noticeable while watching this riveting film is its distinctive look and feel, using a muted color palette that makes it look like an old photograph or a silent film. It’s a bit unreal watching these known actors in a movie that could have been shot in the early days of filmmaking, but it doesn’t take long to accept this, because it’s accompanied by a gorgeous score from Philip Glass that also could just have easily been taken from that era even with his signature motifs often slipping in.
It’s not always clear whether you’re watching reality or some form of magical fantasy, but about halfway through, the movie becomes a murder mystery. At the same time, Eisenheim’s act and his pleasant demeanor turn into something darker, as he begins calling forth the spirits of the dead, causing even more concern from the prince as he worries that the magician’s devout followers are forming some sort of revolution against church and state. With this disparate change in the tone of the story, the movie’s look changes accordingly, becoming more natural and gritty. Likewise, Glass’ score becomes far sparser in the second half, almost as if the beauty of this world has been removed with the surprising plot twist.
The time period and general mood of this mystery might remind one a bit of the Hughes Brothers’ take on Alan Moore’s “From Hell” or Roman Polanski’s “Oliver Twist,” but Burger’s solid adaptation does a much better job with the story and its intriguing characters.
A lot of that has to do with the quality of the performances by Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, which drive the story. Both of them are always quite good, but they seem to have found a certain simpatico with their characters to make them even more believable. Norton’s Eisenheim is full of his normal charisma and he’s able to sell the character despite his pronounced Austrian accent. Surprisingly, he’s not on screen as much as you would think, the story instead following Giamatti’s quirky Uhl, as he traverses the feud between Eisenheim and the Prince while trying to find a killer. The best scenes in the movie are the two or three between these two great actors, but Rufus Sewell’s pacific-aggressive Crown Prince is a memorable antagonist that’s able to keep pace with them. Jessica Biel is good as their mutual love interest, but she’s on a different level of acting as the male actors in the cast.
Eventually, there’s a confrontation between the characters that’s well worth the slow build-up with a twist ending that’s as much as a cipher as the rest of the film, because you won’t see it coming even if you’re expecting it. While it does makes things a bit clearer, it also solidifies the entire nature of the movie as being one grand illusion.
The Bottom Line:
The Illusionist is not your typical period drama, a breath-taking breakthrough into the suspense-mystery genre that owes as much to Arthur Conan Doyle as it does to M. Night Shyamalan, molding the two of them into a glorious spectacle that’s as marvelous as it is unique.