That’s not my trick… it’s my illusion!
Volumes have already been written about the Victorian era, and how the turn of the century was marked with many great technological and societal changes. One of the most interesting aspects of this—to me, anyway—is the public’s perception of magic. It was during this time that the art of stage magic was more or less defined, with traditions from this era still reflected in magicians’ work today.
Just as stage magic had amazing popularity during those years, so too did the spiritualists. All manner of psychics and mediums popped up during these days, as a fascination with life after death was at the forefront of the collective consciousness. This, then, led to a blurring of the line between those who announced themselves as mere illusionists, and those who claimed to practice genuine supernatural magic. If a man in a tuxedo can make doves appear out of nowhere on stage, then what’s to say that a young woman can communicate with a long since dead relative of yours?
It’s into this setting, and this mindset, that we meet The Illusionist. Like the fakirs and fakers of the past, this film challenges viewers to decide what is a trick and what is true magic.
In early 1900s Vienna, one of the most popular acts in town is the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton, Fight Club). During one performance, Eisenheim is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Sophie (Jessica Biel, Stealth). Unfortunately for the two of them, Sophie is engaged to the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell, Dark City), who disliked not only the attraction between the two of them, but also the public’s love of the magician over their love of him. After a shocking tragedy occurs, Eisenheim disappears for several months, only to return with a new act, one in which he appears to raise the dead on stage. As more and more people join Eisenheim’s following, the prince gets more and more flustered, afraid he’s losing control of the populace. To remedy this, the price calls upon Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) to investigate. Like most magicians, Eisenheim’s not about to give up the secret of how he does it, forcing Uhl to take drastic measures.
Magic is an odd form of entertainment, if you think about it. You pay good money to watch a performer go through a series of actions that would seem to defy all physics and logic. Then comes the odd part: at the end, you walk away wondering how it was done. It’s like you only get half of the show, the exciting stuff without the exposition to give it context. You’re amazed by the magic, but you don’t get the explanation. This is fine for most people, but there are those who are frustrated by not knowing how it’s done. This will be true for those who view The Illusionist as well. Many will be content for the romance and the mystery in the plot, but some will be unfulfilled by what isn’t explained.
There are a few mysteries to be solved in this film, but “How does he do it?” is the big one. This question runs through the entire plot, and drives almost everything that happens. It’s here that writer/director Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin) makes some curious choices, ones that will likely divide viewers. All of Eisenheim’s illusions have a basis in scientific reality and could, in theory, really be performed in front of an audience. Burger, however, has decided to “enhance” each of these illusions in some way, making them slightly more fantastical than they would have been, and even adding some CGI for an extra special magical touch. What Burger is shooting for here is to leave viewers wondering whether Eisenheim truly has supernatural powers, or if it was all one big trick. This is a fine line for him to walk, because the magic becomes uninteresting if too much is explained, but it becomes confusing if not explained enough. A lot of viewers are going to be turned off by how much is left up to the imagination here.
Fortunately, there is a lot to praise about The Illusionist as well. In the bonus features, there’s a lot of talk about how Edward Norton plays the title character “close to the chest,” and that’s certainly true. Eisenheim keeps his cool no matter what the situation; and he very rarely lets anyone in on what he’s doing. Norton really pours on the intensity later on in the film, when his character starts communicating with the dead. His demeanor is completely different here from the suave trickster we met at the beginning of the movie. Rufus Sewell also brings some nice intensity to his role. His villain is a control freak rapidly losing control, so that by the end of the movie he’s right on the verge of exploding. Jessica Biel is given a little less to do, in the somewhat thankless role of the woman committed to marry a guy who’s a jackass when she secretly really loves the mysterious celebrity.
The real performance of note in this film, though, is Paul Giamatti as the never-gives-up police inspector. Giamatti is cast against type in this one, trading in his usual lovable nebbish character for a confident and driven detective. He’s completely changed his voice and mannerisms here, creating a character that you would not want chasing you if you had committed a crime. As the movie progresses toward its big finale, the inspector becomes a thorn in pretty much everyone’s backside, and of course that just makes it more fun to see Giamatti antagonizing all the other characters in his bull-headed pursuit of the truth.
There are a lot of other aspects of The Illusionist that deserve praise, such as the nice performances, the lush cinematography, the gorgeous sets and costumes, and the classy score by Philip Glass (The Hours). Unfortunately, the nagging unexplained elements of the plot keep this one from being the gripping drama it wants to be. Viewers shouldn’t still be trying to figure out the plot once the closing credits start to run.
For this review, DVD Verdict was issued a watermarked screener disc, the audio and visual quality of which is presumably lesser than the one you’ll find on store shelves. That being said, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the 5.1 sound is similarly immersive and booming. The best of the extra features is a commentary with Neil Burger, in which he discusses a lot of interesting tidbits about magic history, and how The Illusionist pays tribute to how magic was performed back in the old days. The featurette is a nice overall look at production, but it runs a little too short. The Jessica Biel interview repeats a lot of her interview footage from the featurette, making this one pretty unnecessary. Also included are a few trailers for some upcoming Fox releases.
As I wrote above, there’s a lot to like about The Illusionist, but far too much goes unrevealed. But, don’t worry. There’s a magic trick of your own you can do. You are able to make this DVD appear in your living room, where you can watch it, and then make it disappear just as easily. This trick is called “the rental.” See if you can figure out how it’s done.