Movies are a copycat industry. If one thing succeeds, audiences can be sure to see numerous versions of the same story with little discernible difference. The screwball comedies of the 1980s are a great example of this. Sometimes though there will be a trend that completely comes out of a left field then just as quickly vanishes. Like magic. This happened in 2006 when not one, not two, but three movies were released about stage magicians. I made the mistake of seeing two of them in theaters. The result was me thinking Christoper Nolan’s The Prestige was a great movie (it was) and me thinking The Illusionist was awful. With the new Blu-ray release of the Neil Burger film from MVD Entertainment Group, I decided to revisit the movie.
The Illusionist takes place in turn of the century Vienna. Starring Edward Norton as Eisenheim, the tale is about a magician who reunites with a woman whose social status is far above his. The two met when they were younger but were not allowed to see each other since Eisenheim was a peasant. The two meet in secret until they were found out. When the two meet again years later, they become caught up in murder, political schemes, and illusions.
The story’s structure is creative and plays into the movie’s title. Told through flashbacks by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the audience is only aware of what Uhl has pieced together. In other words, much like any magic show, the audience only sees what the performer wants them to see. Initially, this may sound cheap. After all, how can anyone fully enjoy a movie when they are not being told the whole story? Therein lies the beauty in The Illusionist. This is not some cheap parlor trick in order to bait and switch the audience. In effect, the movie is the trick itself.
Of course, this type of storytelling would come off as insulting to the audience if The Illusionist did not have a strong enough cast. Norton is great in this film. Despite his not so sterling reputation, there is little denying that he is a great actor. The role of Eisenheim suits the Academy Award nominee almost perfectly. The part of the magician requires equal parts mystery, knowledge, and plenty of emotion. Norton plays the part deftly making even scenes that should be hokey appear mesmerizing.
The supporting cast also do a wonderful job. Giamatti is great as the narrator and Jessica Biel excels in her role as Sophie, Eisenheim’s longtime love interest, but the best performance may come from Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold. Eisenheim and Leopold serves as avatars for magic and reason and the debates they have draw the audiences in. The two have a great chemistry and are a highlight of the film.
The Illusionist does a lot of things right, but the one thing it does wrong is very surprising. In a movie that asks questions about magic, reality, and belief, it has an incredibly predictable ending. It is not a deal breaker, but part of the fun in magic is wondering how the rabbit got in the hat to begin with. Knowing does not necessarily make the trick less fun to watch, but it does lose its charm.
Rewatching movies can be rewarding for a number of reason. In the case of The Illusionist, seeing the movie again entirely changed my opinion of it. An interesting narrative structure is a magic trick itself while the acting will engage audiences in a fairly typical love story. The ending may be anticlimactic for some, but it is also satisfying. And that may be The Illusionist’s greatest trick of all.