A Question of Transformation
The Illusionist / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 31, 2006 | Comments ()
You can never trust a magician. You know from the outset that he’s bent on deceiving you, something that only grows clearer despite his repeated promises that there’s nothing up his sleeve. But he insists his hands are empty, and the audience willingly complies for the sake of the show. At their best, filmmakers attempt to pull off the same kind of trick: They propose to tell you the truth, but do their best to work in a few surprises and a revelatory ending. And we go along with it, too, since the whole point of being amazed is to act — to believe — that the story will be ordinary, only to feel that familiar rush of excitement and gratitude when the filmmaker pulls a whole warren of rabbits out of a battered hat. And if all that sounds way too cornball for you, well, tough rocks. Writer-director Neil Burger’s first feature, The Illusionist, is a dazzling display of textured storytelling, a moving tale of romance and political strife, and the rare period drama that doesn’t bore you to tears. And did I mention the magic?
Set in Vienna at the turn of the century, the film begins with a controversial performance from Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) that leads to his arrest onstage by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Uhl briefs Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) on the event later that evening, and here the film folds into a flashback that will last until the final scenes. Uhl begins telling Leopold of Eisenheim’s personal history, narrating the story of how young Eisenheim, the son of a carpenter, fell in love with a girl named Sophie, a member of the aristocracy, and of how their furtive relationship was ended, as always by the grown-ups. By this point, Burger and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil have already beautifully established the scene, but Burger begins to really show his chops with the artfully composed passage of Eisenheim’s youth, burning the edges of the frame and giving the picture a slightly flickering quality as if it’s playing on an old kinetoscope. It’s a gloriously effective shorthand that submerges the viewer not just in the story but the feeling that the tale is old, almost ancient. Burger even uses iris-in and -out techniques to transition between certain scenes. It’s tempting to just write off the devices as a lazy take on how everything old is new again, but Burger makes it work.
Eisenheim leaves home and returns an accomplished master of legerdemain, whose astonishing performances — his act includes growing an orange tree from a seed — soon draw the attention of Leopold. The prince and his entourage attend one of Eisenheim’s shows and, when the magician asks for a volunteer, Leopold sends up his fiancee: Sophie (Jessica Biel), now all grown up. There’s a heartbreaking moment when she mounts the stage and Eisenheim recognizes her but hides it quickly: Norton’s eyebrows raise and his face breaks slightly, then he returns to business as usual. It’s the moment that changes everything after it, and that takes the story to the first of many new levels.
Soon enough, Eisenheim and Sophie begin seeing each other behind Leopold’s back and, under ordinary circumstances, this is the part where I’d change the channel to see what’s on HBO. Period romances just aren’t my thing. At all. And yet, Burger’s script, adapted from Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” keeps the plot moving at a brisk enough pace without getting bogged down in turgid, ruffled-shirt declarations of undying whatever. Before long, Eisenheim and Sophie are swept up in a plot involving Leopold’s desire to rule the empire, which includes his assigning Uhl to investigate Eisenheim after the magician pokes fun at the prince during a command performance at the castle.
That’s as much as I can freely discuss, except to commend Burger for giving his film a feeling of life and growth. Instead of beginning with an interesting premise that peters out around the middle of Act Two, The Illusionist constantly shifts its focus, evolving into a new and grander story with each plot turn, until the final frame reveals a deeper meaning to the entire story. Edward Norton’s performance is predictably stunning throughout, a fully realized character drawn from the most basic descriptions. But he really stands out in in the performance scenes. Norton even learned a few tricks to minimize the amount of computer aid in the illusions, thanks to consultant/magician/actor Ricky Jay, probably best known as the narrator in Magnolia. Giamatti will always be himself, to a degree, but with his beard thicker than usual and his voice restrained to a lower-register growl, he slips believably into character as a cop struggling between the temptations of power and a desire to pursue justice no matter the cost. Most surprisingly, Biel does a capable job as well, though her accent is the most inconsistent of the three. It’s refreshing to see her away from projects like the horrifying London; I’m starting to believe she can actually act. Not that the film is flawless by any means; Giamatti’s narration, as is usually the case, is spotty, and disappears for so long that it’s reinstitution toward the end is a little jarring. And Burger probably could have at least used a title card to set the time frame, since history morons like me need all the help we can get.
The heart of the film isn’t the love story, or it isn’t just that. It’s about the gray area between the willful suspension of disbelief and the reluctant acceptance of something that defies the laws of nature. When Eisenheim performs for Leopold and other young royals at the castle, Leopold stops the show and mounts the stage with the intention of discovering the truth of what the audience has seen. His friends cry out complaints, to which Leopold replies, “He wishes to entertain you, but I wish to enlighten you. Which is more noble?” He can’t see that Eisenheim is actually enlightening the people by pushing their boundaries of belief. In fact, the practice of referring to the performer as an illusionist and to his act as a series of tricks is itself a safeguard against the kind of belief the film itself encourages. Despite Eisenheim’s admission that his works are nothing but illusions, they still carry a weight and inspire his followers. Burger’s film, likewise, though it cops to being a flawed bag of tricks that makes several head fakes at resolution on the way to its ultimate climax, still manages to entertain and uplift. Burger makes the film much more than the sum of its ordinary parts. It’s a trick well worth watching.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.