A long time ago,
audiences still had a sense of wonder. Though it seems quaint
now, people would sit still and strain to listen in small
theaters as men with a sense of wordplay and the ability
to misdirect attention held them rapt. Perhaps it was because
the people were more willing to believe then, but writer/director
Neil Burger manages to recreate that feeling with The
Illusionist, and for the most part holds us rapt, too.
Set at turn
of the 19th Century Vienna, The Illusionist balances
the old age of wonder with a new age of cynicism. Trapped
in between them, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) keeps
order in the city on behalf of, and perhaps in spite of,
the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). This very modern
royalty has a problem with "…thinking too much," but throughout
most of the film, it's really thinking too much about himself.
vexed by Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), an entertainer
(at first) who has captured the attention of the people.
The film begins with his arrest by Uhl, and winds backward
explaining the legend of Eisenheim and piecing together
that the magician had been the first love of "Sophie" (Jessica
Biehl), the Duchess Leopold intends to marry for political
Yet that all
makes the film's plot sound ordinary, and perhaps it is.
But The Illusionist has style, atmosphere, and an
insistent sense of longing from the characters at its center
that keeps transcending the mundane plot elements.
To steep us
in the mood, Burger shoots many scenes as if they were in
a silent film. The opening titles have the ornate script
and shaky positioning of early title cards. Scenes shift
with off-center fuzzy irises closing and opening, on lighting
that diffuses and flattens sets. Even the couple of instances
of slow motion footage look hand-cranked and lack that feeling
of trying to look cool; instead, they just subtly underscore
an emotional moment.
It also helps
that Phillip Glass scores the film in a very old-fashioned
way, taking more cues from Tchaikovsky's work for Eisenstein
than his own earlier dissonance. The music never intrudes,
but allows the fragile moments to resonate all the more.
And that's the
wonder of The Illusionist. Through most of the film,
Burger builds something ethereal, even as characters wonder
over whether or not Eisenheim truly has magical powers.
The first half makes it clear as clockwork, but as events
progress things cloud over, and we want to believe that
somehow Eisenheim has something of the supernatural about
any rate, having two of our best character actors anchor
the film makes for no illusion. As Uhl, Giamatti inhabits
a dialect and a skin that resembles work he's done before,
and yet feels utterly new from him. The "son of a butcher"
who may be the closest confidante of Leopold shambles among
the different social strata with deceptive ease, steely
underneath his softness.
Giamatti and underplaying even with his light Viennese accent,
Norton takes a showy role and shows restraint. The result
is powerful, letting us inside the character in a way that
Norton hasn't done in a long time. He's matched in quiet
intensity, by the way, with Aaron Johnson playing Eisenheim
as a boy. The younger actor comes off just as well as the
On the surface,
it would seem that one actor here just doesn't belong. Yet
Biehl, who just a couple of years ago looked to be little
more than a scream queen, has a breakthrough role here.
She looks completely at home in the time period, displaying
grace and charm that she never needed when getting chainsawed
Norton train with the master illusionist Ricky Jay, Burger
does give in to the urge to use CG effects, and it's disappointing.
One illusion becomes a great white whale for Uhl, and even
though the film repeatedly shows detailed plans on how it
could be done on stage, it's clearly a computer when it
didn't have to be.
also rushes his ending, jarring after the perfect pacing
for 90% of the film. Yet these flaws hardly tip the scale
against this elegant romantic thriller. Despite its illusions,
The Illusionist is that rare solid effort among the
usual lightweight summer fare.