Synopsis: In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing. (From IMDb)
Review: Two magician related films debuted in 2006: The Prestige and The Illusionist. Both films explore the rather gritty side of how magicians scrap out a living and the impact of the profession on their families. However, The Illusionist is by far the more artistic of the two films. Everything from the sepia light filters to the costuming evokes a different time period all together. The Illusionist is a semi-silent and there are several scenes that only have mumbled fragmented dialogue. Neil Burger prefers to focus on creating a surreal environment and only minimally focuses on characterization. This results in creating an air of mystery around the main character, Eisenheim. Part of the magic of this film is trying to unravel the motivation behind the enigmatic magician.
In this turn of the century tale, Vienna’s Chief Inspector Uhl is investigating the political and philosophical duel between Eisenheim the Illusionist and Crown Prince Leopold. Caught in between is Sophie von Teschen, the childhood love of Eisenheim and the future princess of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leopold considers himself to be a man of reason and is determined to expose Eisenheim as a fraud. However, Eisenhem is a savvy politician and lets his illusions speak for themselves. He makes no assertions and lets his audiences draw their own conclusions. And this tactic only enhances his supernatural reputation amongst the fawning Viennese populace. Prince Leopold views Eisenheim’s popularity as a threat to his ambition to be king and Eisenheim repeatable challenges the Prince’s authority. In the midst of all this wrangling, Uhl is ordered to uncover the truth behind Eisenheim’s magic after the magician says that he can make the prince disappear. This tension sets up an interesting exploration about art, politics, and religion, and the sometimes indistinguishable boundaries separating them.
As a narrator, Inspector Uhl’s perspective is limited to whatever information he manages to piece together. He is not an all knowing narrator. Like all detective, he fills in any gaps through instinct and imagination. Playing an ambitious policeman from humble roots is a refreshing change of pace for Paul Giamatti. He is an excellent character actor and proves it with this performance. Uhl comes across as an ambitious but reasonable man who carries himself with the gravitas of royalty. The film introduces Uhl as a potential villain with the scene showing him striding down a hallway lined with antlers and stuffed head. Yet, he soon becomes the most likable and reasonable character in the film. Giamatti is a charismatic presence and commands every scene. I think this is one of Giamatti’s best performances and he really makes Uhl come alive. Giamatti is such a talented actor because he can disappear into a role and makes you forget that you are watching an actor.
Before this film, I had only seen Edward Norton in The Italian Job. I always thought Norton had the potential to be great, but the film I saw him in did not highlight his talents. Anyways, Norton was an excellent choice for Eisenheim. He really disappears into the role of the enigmatic illusionist. Eisenheim is fiercely intelligent, he is probably the smartest character in the film. Followed closely by Uhl. Visually, Eisenheim stands out thanks to long sleek black hair and penetrating eyes. The close-ups of Eisenheim’s irises are some of the film’s best effects. He appears both familiar and utterly alien at the same time. When he asks an audience member to stare into his eyes, it is almost an in-joke. With those darkly mesmerizing eyes staring at you, where else would you possibly look? Norton does a great job making Eisenheim both mysterious and sympathetic. The best scenes in the film are when the calm Eisenheim matches wills with the temperamental Leopold.
Rufus Sewell has made a career out of portraying slightly crazy secondary characters. Prince Leopold is no exception. While Sewell does a good job as always, Leopold is too one-dimensional to pose any kind of acting challenge. There is no subtlety to the character. He is a dashing control freak who is capable of flying into a frightening rage when crossed. His tantrums call to mind an undisciplined child. Leopold is the weakest link in the story simply because he is not a compelling villain. Everyone else seems to be playing a multi-layered sophisticated political game while Leopold charges into everything with all the subtlety of a bull in china shop. Perhaps the saddest part, I could easily picture a dozen other actors playing this role. The character is too simple to prove any kind of challenge to a seasoned character actor. Jessica Biel does a credible job as the poorly developed Sophie. She serves more as a plot element than an actual character. But Biel does her best with the role.
Characters aside, the film is gorgeously rendered. Dick Pope’s cinematography is full of flickering, sepia-tinged visuals that call to mind the early days of motion pictures. The sequences from Eisenheim’s childhood are set apart by a blurred frame that evokes feelings of mystery. As the movie moves away from childhood reminiscences, the images become sharper and relatively brighter. Magic is hard to capture on screen because audiences have become adept at separating the real from computer generated content. But Burger was aiming for a more surreal and spiritualistic look with the magic in this film. As a result, Eisenheim’s magic tricks manage to produce a genuine wow effect because they are free of glaringly obvious cinematographic enhancements. Even though the tricks are fake, they seem like genuine works of art. Pacing wise, the film takes it time to unfold and meanders its way through the plot. However, The Illusionist is an excellent film and I highly recommend watching it at least once.