A solid, well-crafted mystery, The Illusionist is an unusual film in its deliberate — and very effective — old-fashioned approach. Writer-director Neil Burger has not only created the kind of romantic mystery tale that is never seen these days, but he’s gone as far as he possibly can in making the film in a style to match. Much like the story’s main character, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), Burger is something of a conjurer himself — offering up the illusion of what his story might have looked like had it been filmed in the late 19th century.
Burger has adopted as much of the simple cinematic style of the early days of filmmaking as possible without slavishly handcuffing himself to it. He hasn’t created a film that truly looks like an old film. He’s created an imagining of such a film — an illusion. And this much of The Illusionist is brilliant and a perfectly apt summation of the art of film, the most illusory of all art forms. After all, what is a film other than a concerted attempt to fool the audience into accepting the idea that literally hundreds of disconnected bits of film (many containing their own individual deceptions) are a flowing narrative? Filmmaking is at bottom a very elaborate conjuring trick where a character opens a door on a street in Prague and enters a room that might in reality be a soundstage outside of London, where a piece of film shot two months previously is hooked together with a scene shot that morning to create the illusion of an unbroken continuity of time. It’s abracadabra at 24 frames a second.
And The Illusionist is the perfect vehicle for such a meditation. It suits the story’s own con game — and in so doing slyly alerts the viewer that he or she is being had. The only problem with this playful conceit is that chances are you already knew you were in the midst of being bamboozled anyway. Knowing this just ups the ante to comment on the process as concerns all movies, making it a neat intellectual exercise, but one lacking much in the way of emotional resonance. The viewer is in much the same position as Eisenheim’s antagonist, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who spends a good part of the film puzzling over one of the magician’s tricks. He knows it’s a trick, but he can’t figure out how it was done. We know exactly the same thing about the plot. As a result, The Illusionist winds up being slightly dry entertainment that you applaud for pulling the wool over your eyes by way of its filmmaking more than its storytelling.
The story is engaging enough in its old-fashioned way, with star-crossed lovers separated in childhood because of class distinctions, who meet again as adults only to find those same distinctions keeping them apart in an even more complicated manner. Some of it works nicely, even when we know it has to happen. For example, we know that Eisenheim will find himself in a position where the grown Sophie (Jessica Biel, Elizabethtown) will end up as the onstage volunteer for one of his tricks. That’s fine — it’s movie reality, and in a film like this it’s what we want. Similarly, we want — and get — the obstacle to keep them apart in the guise of her outwardly charming but arrogant, dangerous and unbalanced fiance Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, Tristan + Isolde).
The movie works hard to fulfill our expectations and desires, and it largely succeeds — except in one particular. It’s so busy being an intellectual exercise and clever entertainment that it fails to make us care very much about its characters. Part of the problem lies in the casting of Edward Norton in the lead. Norton isn’t a bad actor, but neither is he an inherently sympathetic one, and this is the kind of role in the kind of movie that requires a lead who brings that quality to the role. Norton’s performance is too much intellect and too little heart. Even the villainous Leopold seems more human (though I kept waiting for his mustache to fall off), despite the fact that slightly psychotic bad guys have become a cliche for Rufus Sewell. Biel is surprisingly good, but she needs a romantic partner and he just isn’t there. It’s left to Paul Giamatti to give the film its emotional complexity, and he very nearly succeeds, offering possibly his best performance to date.
In the end, with the combination of its cleverness, production values, craftsmanship, entertainment and a fascinating musical score by Philip Glass, it’s easy to overlook the film’s shortcomings and concentrate on the things it gets right. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke