The Illusionist is a tale of performer vs. nobleman in eighteenth century Vienna. The magician performs on stage, the nobleman hosts social events; both are platforms for waging a war of ideas.
At its heart, the Illusionist is about two men fighting for a woman's heart. Eisenheim (Edward Norton, intense as ever), is a long lost childhood friend of the Duchess Sophie (Jessica Beil, looking positively radiant). As the mere son of a carpenter, he is not of the appropriate social status to romance the young Duchess, and thus the two are separated on pain of imprisonment. Eisenheim leaves for the Orient; when he returns, he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
The Crown Prince Leopold (played by Rufus Sewell with bristling rage) is a brutish man with high ambitions. He plans to supplant his father and take the throne as Emperor of Austria. Sophie represents a political alliance of convenience, and her pending marriage to Leopold is a demand, not a request. As Sophie states, "He will never leave us alone until we are both dead." This gives Eisenheim an idea.
Investigating the case is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), embodying the everyman who's basically a decent soul, but caged by his career. Living on the periphery of Leopold's shadow, Uhl has little choice but to follow the Prince's doomed bid for power.
Thus the stage is set for a battle of hearts and minds, prince vs. performer, as both use their respective soapboxes to espouse their ideologies. Upon the murder of the Duchess, Eisenheim shifts his magic acts from prestidigitation to spiritualism, summoning spirits of the dead before a live audience. The amazing spirits he summons are so convincing that Eisenheim practically creates a new religion.
The Illusionist is filmed in sepia tones, befitting a movie set in the 18th-century. Cut scenes squint in and out of focus like old silent movies. Phillip Glass' usually repetitive music is appropriate as a backdrop to Vienna, neither intrusive or cloying.
By far the most impressive of The Illusionist's visual effects are the magic tricks themselves. Through judicious use of computer graphics, Eisenheim causes an orange tree to grow before our eyes, butterflies to carry handkerchiefs over the audience's head, and ghosts to walk right through people. This is most assuredly not what the magic tricks would have really looked like in the 18th century, but director Neil Burger has a different goal: he wants us to experience Eisenheim's magic as if WE were the audience, so the special effects are ratcheted up to fool modern audiences. In essence, it's an illusion about an illusion. It works perfectly.
The actors really earn their keep. Norton is amazing as Eisenheim, alternately distant and focused, passionate and reserved. He suffers with painful, palpable longing for the Duchess. Biel, relegated to elfin, punk roles in the past, comes into her own here as a desperate, trapped woman resigned to her gilded cage. And then there's Giamatti, who grumbles, glares, and huffs like every good inspector should. He also adds a much-needed dose of humor.
I'm not exactly sure where the film was being advertised, but it must have been aiming at a very specific demographic. When my wife and I went to see The Illusionist, we were surprised that the average age group of our fellow moviegoers was 60 and up. At one point, the inspector speaks an expletive that was obviously edited out; this movie has been sanitized for grandmas everywhere. Fortunately, the change isn't detrimental to the movie.
The conclusion isn't much of a surprise for attentive moviegoers. In fact, I would have taken points off for Burger hitting us over the head with a hammer to explain what happened…except that the elderly couple behind us had difficulty distinguishing Norton from Giamatti. They asked everyone in earshot what the big twist was. They kept asking as we left the theater…and even the restroom.
Overall, The Illusionist is a tight film of big ideas wrapped in the Victorian veneer of the old world. Just like the stagecraft Eisenheim performs, The Illusionist proves that sometimes, perception really is reality.