What do you get when you combine romance, magic, a murder mystery with a supernatural element, and a dash of turn-of-the-century Austrian politics? Toss in Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell and Jessica Biel, and you have Neil Burger's fanciful tale The Illusionist, based on a short story called Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser. The film is about two young lovers of differing social rank, whose youthful romance is torn asunder by the constraints of class and duty, leaving young Sophie with nothing but a fond memory of the love of her youth and a remarkable locket with a secret.
Years later, Sophie's childhood friend and first love has grown to be Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a handsome, darkly brooding young man not unlike the kind of young men one can find sitting around internet cafes today: Nattily dressed in black, doodling in sketch books or writing frantically in poetry journals; serious, intellectual young men, with an air of tragedy or loss (or perhaps just chronic depression) hovering around them like an impenetrable cloud. Eisenheim is a late 19th century version of the ever-romantic brooding artist figure, and Norton seems to feel at home in the "glowering moodily-from-under-the-brows" look. Eisenheim interacts with others primarily through the magical illusions he performs on stage, keeping himself an arm's length from humanity. One of these illusions, "The Orange Tree," in which the illusionist seemingly grows an orange tree in a pot from a seed right before the audiences's eyes, captures the fancy of Vienna's Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
Eisenheim has come to Vienna as a part of his tour; he sets up shop there, as he would in any other town. But Vienna is the territory of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a man of science who longs to bring logic and reason to his people. Crown Prince Leopold is convinced he can outsmart this upstart of an illusionist, and sets out to do so. Eisenheim, for his part, is not willing to be upstaged by a crown prince, even if it means putting himself at personal risk as he politely withstands the prince's passively hostile intellectual queries. When Eisenheim realizes that the Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), the prince's soon-to-be fiancee, is his own long-lost love -- and she figures out who he is -- you just know trouble is bubbling beneath the surface.
The Crown Prince fancies himself something of a lady's man -- at least in the sense that he thinks he has the right to abuse and control the ladies in his presence -- and he is not about to let go of the beautiful young duchess. Leopold orders Chief Inspector Uhl, a man of lower social class who aspires to the higher realms, to tail Eisenheim and determine how Eisenheim performs his illusions, so that the prince can discredit the man as a magician. It never seriously occurs to him that Sophie would prefer a magician to a prince, he merely wishes to put this little nothing in his place. When Sophie turns up dead after refusing the Crown Prince, though, Eisenheim turns the tables on Inspector Uhl, pressuring him to find the evidence that will label the Crown Prince a murderer. Uhl must choose between his own aspirations to rise in power, and his gut feeling that the illusionist, whom he has come increasingly to admire, is right.
The Illusionist is a fairy tale at heart, taking a story essentially about class politics and science versus spiritualism, and rendering it interesting to the audience through the appeal of its romance -- and there's nothing more romantic than star-crossed lovers, especially those kept apart by class boundaries. We love to believe in the power of love to usurp social status and duty, and Eisenheim and Sophie are appealing and idyllic characters that we can wrap our minds and hearts around. Burger shoots the film with a softness that lends to the fantasy-feel of his story. Every element of the visual design and editing reminds us that we are essentially within the pages of a fairy tale; this is smart on Burger's part, because it allows us to willingly suspend our disbelief, which is paramount to this tale. We need to believe, as Eisenheim's audience does, that his illusions are very real, because it is this magic that drives the entire second act of the film. We need to believe that the power of love is strong enough to reach beyond the grave, and that one passionate man, deeply devoted to his lost love, might just have enough passion to cross the boundaries between life and death.
While the design elements certainly help achieve this, it is the actors themselves who bring the characters to life. Norton, as Eisenheim, turns in perhaps his best performance since American History X as the brooding, lovelorn magician. Norton brings to Eisenheim a crackling intensity, especially in the scenes when he is matching wits against the equally intelligent Crown Prince. He is a charismatic actor, with an uncanny ability to almost hypnotize through the screen, a skill he uses to good effect here in playing a man who makes his living manipulating reality.Giamatti, playing against type as the troubled inspector, brings all the potency to his role that we've come to expect from the powerhouse actor of the moment. His Uhl is a conflicted man: He admires Eisenheim, yet must bring him down for the sake of his job and a desired promotion; he seeks to elevate himself in a society heavily rooted in class distinction, yet loathes the moral compromises he must make in order to do so.
Every fairy tale needs a villain. Thankfully, Sewell makes Crown Prince Leopold a multi-dimensional character; the facets of Leopold's personality often contradict each other. This is a man who believes passionately in the intellect and in science, who wants to see an end to his people believing in magic, illusions, or spirituality. Perhaps he understands on some level that the people believe in Eisenheim's magic because it takes them outside their lackaday lives to a world where anything can happen; perhaps he simply thinks them gullible fools and wants to enlighten them with reason. Whatever his motivation, Leopold clearly believes strongly in the power of reason and rationality to the extent that he will destroy anything that contradicts his views. In spite of his intellectual abilities, on a personal level Leopold is something of a misanthrope; he gives little indication that he sees other people as anything other than pawns to be manipulated. Particularly, Leopold's attitude toward women bespeaks an underlying contempt for the fairer sex; the more drawn Sophie is to Eisenheim, the more Leopold seeks to own her and control her. One has the sense, as well, that his intellectual sensibilities are somewhat wounded by Sophie's attraction to this traveling magician, a man clearly beneath a crown prince on the social ladder, in spite of Eisenheim's snappy attire and impeccable manners.
Biel isn't given a great deal to do here, besides look luminously lovely, which she does very well. Minimal makeup and period costumes suit the lovely actress, and it's easy to believe that both these intellectual men are drawn to her beauty. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen the character of Sophie display more intellectual spark and passion; too often in the film, events happen to her, at the hands of either Eisenheim, the Crown Prince, or other people in control of her life. She does ultimately display some spunk, but never really drives the plot. Perhaps that too, though, is part of the illusion Burger creates for the story. Leopold is so convinced of his own superiority that he would never believe a woman capable of betraying and deceiving him; his ego is far too great to accept that he might be usurped by anyone, much less a woman or a roadshow illusionist.
There is a certain allure to a tale about magic that draws people into it, and Burger certainly creates here a tale intriguing enough to draw in most viewers. Eisenheim's illusions are fascinating, and Norton so completely becomes his character that it's easy to forget, while watching, that you're watching an actor playing the part of an illusionist -- essentially, an illusion within an illusion. Like a fun house mirror, Burger's story is never quite what you think it is; just when you think you have things figured out, you don't, and the story has a nifty twist that will probably surprise most, at least in how it is executed. The Illusionist sweeps us into its world, where we are left to figure out what is real and what isn't; ultimately our own belief in magic and love will shape what we take from the film. Those who enjoy seeking out the whys and wherefores will be intrigued by both the illusions and the mystery of the Sophie's death; those who lean toward a fanciful view of the world will be entranced by the tale's tragic romance and its melancholy hero.