Review By: Andrea Tuccillo
As Blanche DuBois once proclaimed in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” It’s a sentiment echoed by the mystifying film The Illusionist, a tale of magic, romance and intrigue set in turn of the century Vienna.
The Illusionist does not aim for realism—it aims for things that are not what they seem. Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser called “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the screen version of The Illusionist was written and directed by Neil Burger. The film plays out like a fable, and quite an enchanting one at that.
Edward Norton is Eisenheim, a lovelorn illusionist with a gift for the unexplained. Fascinated with magic from an early age, Eisenheim becomes a master of his craft, bewildering his audiences with grand displays that blur the line of physics and human capabilities. His tricks don’t involve hats, cards, or rabbits. No, Eisenheim’s act is much more complex. He makes an orange tree seemingly spring up from an empty flower pot and he makes mirror images take on a life of their own—feats that leave crowds dumfounded, awestruck and always anxious to see more.
He’s a famous magician, throngs of loyal followers filling his theater every night. But his existence is a lonely one. Eisenheim’s memory of a childhood love haunts him still. It was an innocent love that was never meant to be—he was poor she was not—and they were ultimately separated by the girl’s powerful family.
The flame of this lost love is rekindled when Sophie (Jessica Biel), now all grown up and engaged to a prince (Rufus Sewell), arrives with her fiancé to one of Eisenheim’s shows. They must find a way to be together despite the arrogant prince’s greedy and controlling plans. But when Sophie is found murdered, all hope seems to be lost. Or is there more to it than meets the eye?
Paul Giamatti plays the affable, bumbling Chief Inspector Uhl determined to solve Sophie’s mysterious murder, as well as becoming increasingly obsessed with uncovering the secrets to Eisenheim’s illusions.
Norton and Giamatti are fine actors, and they do the best with what they are given here. Jessica Biel’s screen time in The Illusionist is limited, but she proves she isn’t half bad. The role is a departure from the superficial mediocre movie roles that subsequently followed her run on 7th Heaven, and that can only be a good thing.
Norton is good at playing tortured and romantic. He has a likeable air about him, which is perhaps what makes him into such a charismatic leading man. Something is missing from Eisenheim, however, and perhaps on purpose. The whole movie plays out from