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
Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser (‘Martin Dressler’) “The Illusionist” is on its surface a romantic drama but like Eisenheim’s illusions that is merely a gloss to distract the viewer from what is actually going on. At its heart, “The Illusionist” is about class struggle. Eisenheim and Sophie are forced apart because of the disparities of their background. As a member of the lower class made good, and even more so once he begins to seemingly raise the spirits of the dead, Eisenheim becomes the working man’s hero vying against the paragon of the elite, Prince Leopold, ostensibly for Sophie’s hand but more subtly to prevent him from becoming Emperor.
Leopold represents all that is wrong with the upper crust of society – a narcissistic belief in his own superiority mixed with a marked disregard for the sanctity of life (notably the imperial hunting lodge he uses as his own personal sanctum, literally surrounded by the heads of the animals he’s hunted). He is, as Sophie describes him, “too intelligent for his own good.” He is smart enough to see the problems with democracy – “a thousand voices crying out and nothing getting done because of it” – just as he is smart enough to realize that Eisenheim’s tricks are just that, but not quite smart enough to come up with a solution. Instead, he resorts to barbarism and the ideal of the benevolent dictator (not quite, or perhaps refusing to realize that he is not at all suited to that role) with the implicit understanding that he will rule Austria with an iron fist, choosing order over justice and keeping the common man under his boot.
As with most of the rest of the film these particular levels of the character are played subtly, perhaps too subtly, taking the back seat to the romance and suspense elements of the film leaving Sewell with little to play against until near the close of the film. The result is that Leopold comes across as generically villainous most of the time. He gets a few choice moments in the second half as he sneaks into one of Eisenheim’s performances in disguise and most notably in his final confrontation with Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) where the more complex levels of his character are finally allowed out into the air even if it is a bit late. He is most of the time more of a plot device than a character.
And the same is even more true of Eisenheim and Sophie. Norton does his usual strong work (also most notable in his scenes with Giamatti) and Biel shows that with the right material and the right director she could develop into a strong talent. Despite the good work being done, though, the reality is both characters are ciphers whose greatest importance is moving the plot along. This is most true of Eisenheim who, despite being in most of the film, we don’t really get to see the insides of very much. The problem is exacerbated in the second half as Eisenheim retreats into the background and broods while the story focuses squarely on Uhl’s attempt to figure out what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. There’s also an element of the dichotomy of perception and reality and how the two interact with one another, particularly in the way Eisenheim uses them, but that element is mainly used for a “Sting” style double-cross that unfortunately lacks any sort of emotional attachment.
And this is both the good and the bad of “The Illusionist,” for in spite of both the billing and the build up in the first act, “The Illusionist” is very firmly Paul Giamatti’s movie. Like Eisenheim, Uhl is a tradesman’s son trying to work his way up from his humble background and make more of himself. Unlike Eisenheim, however, he has chosen to align himself with the aristocracy, hoping one day to enter their ranks himself even if it means betraying the very people he came from. He is caught in the middle between Leopold and Eisenheim who are both trying to use him. Giamatti is masterful as Uhl, playing him with a deep growling voice and the near permanent sad look of a man who in is own words is “not entirely corrupt” that increases as he is forced to investigate Eisenheim, whom he admires, and re-examine the choices he has made in his life.
It’s not quite all it could be. The lack of characterization makes it difficult to completely connect with the romance story, which never seems as important as Uhl’s crisis of conscience or the socio-economic subtext. Writer-director Neil Burger seems to realize this as well as the film makes a complete change of direction in the second half and Uhl comes to the fore. If nothing else though, “The Illusionist” is worth watching solely for Giamatti’s Oscar-caliber performance.
“The Illusionist” is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.