The Illusionist Review
"Nothing is what it seems." The Illusionist opens in Eisenheim's youth (Aaron Johnson) growing up as the son of a cabinetmaker who, when out walking one day, meets a travelling magician. This man teaches the young Eisenhem several tricks before apparently vanishing from sight. That same day, Eisenheim begins practicing his own magic, which attracts the attentions of young Sophie von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson). As he balances an egg on a stick, she follows him on horseback and, later, they share their first kiss. Eisenheim makes a puzzle locket for Sophie but his class is considered far beneath her's and her father seeks to separate them. Together, they hide in a hut in the forest as Sophie's father approaches with his men but in spite of Sophie begging Eisenheim to, "Make us disappear!", he cannot and the two of them are torn apart. Eisenheim will never see her again and, later, he leaves never to return.
Fifteen years after that and having travelled the world, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) arrives in Vienna. He is now a skilled illusionist and over many nights in the theatre, he amazes audiences with his performances. One night, he calls to the audience for a volunteer. At first, no one comes forward but then, from the back of the theatre, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) requests that his fiancee join Eisenheim on the stage for his next trick. To Eisenheim's surprise, this volunteer is Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) who recognises him as quickly as he recognises her. They meet far away from the Crown Prince and fall in love but Eisenheim knows that Sophie will suffer at the hands of a man well known for violently abusing his lovers. Remembering that Sophie had once told him, "One day we'll run away together...we'll disappear", they plan to leave Vienna under cover of darkness. But then Sophie's body is found and Eisenheim is accused of murder.
The Illusionist is a fairy tale. It begins once upon a time with two children falling in love and hiding in the forest far from their wicked parents who seek to tear them apart. There is magic, a drunken villain, a beautiful lady and a doleful detective attempting to piece a mystery together. The forests are dark and foreboding, there's the sound of clattering from the horse and carts on the cobbled streets and the theatres are warm from the gas lamps on the stage and the smoke that lingers above the audience. In the midst of this is a magician, one who has travelled the world and become skilled in the dark arts. His magic can cause months and years to pass in the blink of an eye, he steals the soul of a young woman after appearing to murder her on the stage and, eventually, he raises the dead. The Illusionist may even offer a happily ever after but the word of those who've seen such bloodshed may not be entirely trustworthy.
It is, though, a pleasingly adult fairy tale, a melodrama set in pre-war Vienna that can be enjoyed as a chocolate box of mystery, romance and wickedness. In the midst of these affairs is police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who appears caught between magic and royalty. Tricks are revealed, clues are proffered by Eisenheim and by the Crown Prince Leopold and witnesses appear to have no more than a vague recollection of the events of the night. But the Illusionist gives little away as to what happened that night. Like a disappearing coin, The Illusionist gives the impression that the mystery is but a sleight of hand. The murderer is, like the coin, hidden behind Eisenheim's hand and if we care to look closely enough at the trickery on the stage, it will be obvious.
Of course, it isn't and though Uhl eventually congratulates himself on solving the mystery, The Illusionist avoids the clear nod to the audience to confirm his thinking. Instead, and stylishly so, it is less about an answer than about the wonder of the illusions itself. Uhl is the kind of man who comes to Eisenheim backstage to understand his magic and, initially, wants for nothing more than to understand how his trick of growing an fruit-bearing orange tree in mere seconds is performed. Eisenheim, on the other hand, understands that it is not the how that matters - that is, after all, only sleight of hand, mechanics and obfuscation - but the why, which is something that he dare not to reveal to Uhl but wants the detective to understand without assistance. In this Giamatti does a sterling job as the dour detective who is thankful for every scrap and titbit from Eisenheim but cannot appreciate the magician is performing as much off the stage as on. Again, Edward Norton is good as Eisenheim, suggesting as much romance as there is revenge in his portrayal of the magician and together he and Giamatti make for an interesting pairing but never so fascinating as the air of mystery in The Illusionist that is present in every scene from Eisenheim's apparent arrest to Uhl's version of events the night of the murder. "Nothing is what it seems." Not, it would seem, even as the mystery is solved.
There is a remarkable look to The Illusionist, one that calls to mind Guy Maddin's Careful or, taking a more populist tone given how little Maddin's films are seen, the Judderman advertisement from a few years back. Director Burger has designed The Illusionist so that it appears to be filmed on a hand-cranked camera and with a shadows in the four corners of the screen that make it look as though The Illusionist were being watched through a keyhole. It looks wonderful, with the look of the film being a perfect match to the kind of story it is and though it's not constant, it's an effect that's welcome when one actually notices it. Happily, Momentum have done a fine job of releasing The Illusionist on DVD with it having a deliberate washed-out appearance that's suited to the material but with a clarity, a depth to the picture and the occasional CG effect that ensures it also looks to be a very modern production. There is no obvious damage to the print and though the film begins with a slight wobble in the opening titles, this looks to be a deliberate effect and does not occur thereafter.
Otherwise, the only audio option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 but it's a very good one with this being one of the very few films where one can hear the rear channels being used throughout. Not only are the surround speakers used to bring Eisenheim's theatre to life but are also there for ambient effects throughout the film with it being clear that the soundtrack to the film has been carefully and expertly designed. The Illusionist is as much of a treat to listen to as it is to watch. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Commentary: Writer/director Neil Burger is on his own for this track, one in which he doesn't care so much for breaking down the film scene-by-scene but, instead, takes each setting in the film and explains the casting, the location and how it drives the plot forward. Burger is at his best when discussing the look of the film and pays credit to his Director of Photography Dick Pope, who earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for The Illusionist but he's better still when explaining the plot. He does, in the end, explain that the interpretation of the film has been left to the viewer to decide upon but he explains the motivation of the characters, their actions and, in interesting little asides, the secrets of the magic tricks of the time.
Making Of... (14m50s): With Neil Burger, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton all being interviewed for this feature, it's a typical promotional piece that does a fine job of publicising the film but less a one of actually explaining the shoot in Prague, the use of visual effects and the look of the film. However, with Magic Consultant James Freeman also interviewed, we go get some appreciation of the magic tricks in The Illusionist even if there's more movie magic in the film than sleight of hand. Or sorcery.
Finally, there is a Trailer (2m23s) and, from the main menu, an Easter Egg that isn't terribly hard to find. Clicking on the link will take the viewer to a menu of magic tricks and an explanation of how they should be performed, which includes Card Levitation, the making of ice cubes out of a glass of water and a Quick Coin Vanish. Two other tricks are included as is a link to www.howtodotricks.com.