The Illusionist (2006) – Retrospective Borderland Review

Director Neil Burger effectively evokes a sense of mystery and magic, but the plot grinds too methodically to match the dazzle of the title character’s on-stage illusions.

At the turn of the 20th century, movies and magic were one and the same, thanks to early pioneers like magician-turned-filmmaker George Milies. Cinema was a modern magic lantern show, an almost mystical experience that conjured the illusion of form and movement where no substance existed. Not only could movies convey an absent reality, but – as Milies discovered – they could also create their own reality through camera tricks that changed a bus into a hearse, expanded a man’s head a dozen times its normal size, or (in the case of the 1902 short film) depicted A TRIP TO THE MOON.
Movies about magic are another matter – as Milies also discovered, when he tried simply filmming one of his magic performances. Placing the medium of camera-projector-screen in between the audience and the action destroyed the immediacy of the performance; the amazement that an illusion had been performed right before your very eyes was lost. Ironically, movies – which seemed magical in and of themselves – could take the esoteric and render it prosaic.

THE ILLUSIONIST’s writer-director Neil Burger seems aware of both the potentials and pitfalls of merging movies with magic. He works extraordinarily hard to presents his film’s illusions in a manner appropriate to the story’s period setting (a period that suggests Milies, even if the film never explicity evokes him). At one point, Burger even has his characters display a flickering few seconds of silent footage as an example of how a ghostly on-stage illusion may have been accomplished. The effect underlines – rather than undermines – the magic, impressing us with the skill and ingenuity used to dazzle audiences in the days before computer-generated movies. (Thankfully, the use of CGI is mostly proscribed here, although there is an unfortunate lapse or two.)
The result is a film that effectively seeks to evoke a sense of mystery, luring us into the illusion and challenging us to accept it – or deny it if we can. It is a good gambit, and it might have worked wonderfully as a half-hour television show; however, it stretches a little thin at feature length, as the mechanics of the plot grind too methodically to match the dazzle of the title character’s on-stage illusions.
Ed Norton stars as Eisenheim, a magician whose childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel) is apparently murdered by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim accuses the Prince, but the semi-corrupt police, in the form of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giametti) do not have the clout to arrest royalty, so Eisenheim stages a series of shows in which he seems to recall the dead woman’s spirit to the land of the living, where she makes veiled pronouncements that the suspicious populace interpret as accusations against Leopold, creating a political controversy. But is Eisenheim truly capable of raising the dead, or is it merely an illusion to attack the man he blames…?
THE ILLUSIONIST plays like a mystery-thriller in historical garb. The production design and cinematography capture the period wonderfully, but the intriguing premise is wrapped in a scenario that is neither very mysterious nor tremendously thrilling. The result is interesting enough to hold your attention without reaching the critical mass that pays off in a way to make you feel your interest has been completely rewarded.
[MINOR SPOILER] Perhaps the major problem is that the plotting is too contrived in its attempts to keep the auidence guessing while springing surprises on them. Even so, you need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the solution to this puzzle. Unlike a good magician, the filmmaker’s slight-of-hand is a bit to blatant with the details of the murder (we see Sewell storming after Biel, but we do not see him kill her, leaving skeptical viewers to wonder why something so important took place off screen – draw the obvious conclusion, and the mystery is solved).[END SPOILER]
Fortunately, the cast supply their own sort of magic, which almost sustains THE ILLUSIONIST, even if the story does not. Sewell is his usual professional self, turning in a subtle performance that makes Leopold interesting even as we grow to dislike and despise him. The big surprises are Biel and Giametti. Although a great actor, Giametti seemed too modern to work in a period setting; nevertheless, he pulls it off wonderfully (his expression at the end, as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place via a montage of flashbacks, helps sell what is otherwise a routine twist). Even more amazing is Biel, whose previous work (in junk like BLADE: TRINITY) gave us no reason to expect anything at all; she makes a thoroughly appealing and convincing love interest, when one would have expected her to come across like a girl playing dress up in old-fashioned clothing.
Norton gives another variation on his standard characterization: the tough guy who knows the score and is not too humble to let you know he knows it. It works in this context, because Eisenheim is playing a dangerous game, trying to bring down a prince in a time and a place where law and order exist only to serve the powerful. However, his all too apparent strength of will also weakens the suspense. There is no crack in Eisenheim’s armor, no Achilles Heel that makes us think he may overplay his hand and lose, making the conclusion of THE ILLUSIONIST a forgone one.
THE ILLUSIONIST is filled with mystery and magic. What it lacks is solid drama. The early childhood scenes, establishing the relationship that will re-ignite as romance in adulthood, are long-winded and treacly, and the first act takes its time setting up the situation before moving to the murdery-mystery plot. (Perhaps sensing this, the film begins in media res, to catpure our attention, before backtracking to the exposition.)
When Eisenheim finally sets his skills on bringing down the Prince, the story realizes more of its potential. But for all its magic, THE ILLUSIONIST is missing one big spark: the love story at its heart is undermined by the early disapperance of Biel’s Sophie, the character reduced to little more than a plot device (in the same way that Dirty Harry or Axel Foley needed to lose a friend/partner in order to motivate them to track down the crooks). You simply cannot create a tragic romance along the lines of ROMEO AND JULIET, if Juliet is is not around after the first act.
THE ILLUSIONIST (2006). Directed by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Neil Burger, based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Milhauser. Cast: Edwward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski