Filmmaker-to-watch Neil Burger (his first film Interview With The Assassin is a gem of independent cinema) tells an enchanting story about Eisenheim, a turn of the century magician (immaculately played by Ed Norton) who reconnects with his childhood sweetheart the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Sophie responds to Eisenheim’s romantic plan to escape together from the razor clutches of Vienna’s corrupt Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to whom Sophie is nearly engaged. A tragedy incites Eisenheim to abandon his signature illusions toward conjuring “ghosts” of real people in order to publicly trap Prince Leopold. Melodramatic passion and a snappy mystery complement this well-written movie based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Steven Millhauser.
Eisenheim sits in a cafe chair on an empty stage in a packed Eastern European theater (although set in Vienna, the film was shot in Prague). His patient demeanor and carefully trimmed goatee belie Eisenheim’s youthful physicality. This is not merely a skilled sleight-of-hand magician but rather a socially aware illusionist effortlessly manipulating the laws of power to bestow on his audience revelations of physical and metaphoric significance. The conjurer plants a seed into a flowerpot, and an orange plant full of fresh fruit abruptly blossoms; he tosses one of the ripe oranges out to an excited patron in the astonished crowd.
Magic historian and performer Ricky Jay served as technical consultant to the production, making sure that all of the illusions pertain directly to the story’s turn of the century timeframe. The effect is beguiling as Eisenheim sets free two butterflies carrying a borrowed handkerchief to its proper owner in the crowd of spectators.
There are no gratuitous sequences of computer generated imagery to distract from the story. The point of each illusion is to reflect an aspect of the story’s progression. In this way Neil Burger enables the audience to discern and examine hidden qualities of Eisenheim’s intelligence and sense of desire.
Flashbacks reveal Eisenheim as a teenage prestidigitator and cabinetmaker’s son when his juvenile relationship with the equally adolescent Sophie von Teschen was halted by her bigoted and wealthy parents. Now 15 years later Eisenheim catches Sophie, still wearing the locket that he handmade for her in childhood, when he randomly calls her up onstage from an audience to participate in one of his tricks. The lovers meet in the afternoons of the following days in clandestine carriage rides that coincide with the geeky-but-effective Inspector Uhl’s surveillance of Eisenheim at the Prince Leopold’s bequest.
The dramatic elements of the romantic story coalesce when Prince Leopold commands Eisenheim to perform in the royal palace. Undaunted by the parlor room constraints imposed on him, Eisenheim takes the bait of the prince’s gambit to use an object found in the room to entertain the elite assemblage. Eisenheim requests the prince’s sword and balances it on the floor from where it can only be removed—like Excalibur—by someone pure at heart.
Paul Giamatti does a deft supporting turn as Chief Inspector Uhl a local detective with an amateur’s passion for magic tricks. The pristine scenes that Giamatti and Norton share are layered with entertaining levels of dramatic and almost comic inflection. These guys are having fun.
The Illusionist is first and foremost a love story. There is a formal reverence for the unspoken loyalty between Eisenheim and Sophie that elegantly expounds on the period aspects of the story to create an atmosphere of timeless devotion and uncommon humility. It supports the old adage that says, “Love will find a way.” The mystery lies in how. MTW