Written by: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan
The power of magic and sleight of hand allows for a dispensation of belief in physics that limits what can possibly be done by a human being. It creates a sense of questioning what is real and where the trick lies, which does not always fare well for those in power in their attempts to keep everything grounded and under control. It’s what makes the particular illusionist of this feature such a threat as the narrative tries to tell a standard love story.
Traveling around the world performing his famous illusions and magic tricks, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) wows audiences of all levels with the way he can do the impossible. From levitating, escaping the perils of death, and even bringing apparitions from the dead. His latest stop has him reunite with his childhood best friend Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel). With her set to marry the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Eisenheim’s presence becomes unwelcome because of what he can conjure through his illusions.
Watching a magician or illusionist’s act always keeps the audience on watch for what the performer does to distract the audience in order to wow with their effect. It comes from the basis of what they achieve not being possible, but their skill comes from either convincing the audience of their prowess or tricking them into not finding the pull of the rug so to speak. It’s what has made these performers persevere in popularity dating back centuries now. A particular and distinct thrill exists in seeing something that should be physically impossible, which is provided in spades by Eisenheim.
As much as this feature contains several intriguing tricks for the audience both on and off-screen to experience, this film at its core operates as a love story along with some minor brushes of political power play. The love story occurs between Eisenheim reconnecting with Sophie as they were not allowed to see each other because of their difference in class. As children, they created a bond, which became slightly romantic when they reached their teenage years and when officially forbidden to see each other, Eisenheim feels much like Heathcliffe in “Wuthering Heights” to make a name for himself. Now reunited as adults, the connection they held remains strong and the journey of getting to each other once again amidst the power struggle at hand with the Crown Prince becomes their biggest obstacle.
Behind the scenes, the Crown Prince wants to make a political power play that would give him his inheritance a bit quicker than naturally afforded to him. While this facet of the feature does not receive much attention, as the narrative seeks to focus more on the love story, the true tension of this storyline comes in the deployment of the police through Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Interacting with Eisenheim in a friendly manner initially, having this character need to follow the rule of the Crown Prince in order to set himself up in the future adds conflict to the story. It puts a character like Uhl in the place of enforcing something he does not ardently believe in with the promise of advancement in the future. This inner conflict comes through in the performance of Giamatti who does more with this role than gets asked but who else can be surprised with the talent level of this actor?
However, the main draw of this feature remains the magic tricks, which worked on this audience much more than it would a more modern and cynical one. The particular trick of bringing people back from the dead like apparitions as a whole brought plenty of intrigue as to how Eisenheim possibly created it. The powerful nature of the trick, however, comes with how it all comes as part of a larger illusion he plays on the audience watching the film and those experiencing his tricks in person. As a film, it tries to pull the rug from under us on many occasions but does not necessarily stick the landing with the emphasis it wants to but it still mostly works overall.
Blending some magic with period drama elements and some political moves, The Illusionist does a good job at presenting its story and bringing forth its emotional moments in a resonant manner. Unable to truly get away from comparisons to a superior film dealing with magic released in the same year in The Prestige, this feature still has plenty to offer and does so successfully because of the relationship between Eisenheim and Sophie right at the center.