Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
As I mentioned before in my review for The Prestige, these two films are often compared to one another due to the fact that both films are period pieces dealing with magic. Once you get past that initial bit of similarity however, the films are strikingly different and are very hard to compare to one another. When I say that I like this film more than The Prestige, it's more of a personal reaction to the mood of the film than a statement that one is superior in writing, direction and acting. On the contrary, both films are well acted, beautifully shot and cleverly executed.
Despite a low budget, director Neil Burger and crew manage to eke out a sumptuously stylish look - almost falling into monochromatic sepia hues at times, and loaded with modern replications of vintage film trappings. At times it feels like one is watching a classic cinematograph exposition. This reminder of the history of cinema also helps tap the audience into the truth that cinema itself began as a form of sensational 'magic'. The story feels like an antique treasure as well, though the film is an adaptation of Steven Millhauser's short story Eisenstein the Illusionist, which was published well into the 20th century. Though for myself, the experience of watching this film was strikingly similar to that of reading Johann Wolfgang Goethe's story The Sorrows of Young Werther (a significant example of the German 'sturm und drang' writing style, that should join Hamlet and Catcher in the Rye as essential reading for angsty, disaffected or plain ole' Goth youths) as a young adult. The act of watching this film felt like reading vintage literature.
The plot begins with a forbidden childhood romance between Eisenheim and a girl named Sophie, whose upper class status is beyond his reach, a la Jack and Rose from Titanic and countless other tales of verboten love. When the powers that be get wind of their dalliances, an attempt to run away from both their homes results in disaster, and when we meet the boy later he has evolved into a bitter, brooding travelling magician. His broken heart has apparently led him on treks across the globe (which is where he honed his skills as an illusionist), but he suddenly decides to return home to the marvelously picturesque location of turn-of-the-century Vienna.
He encounters Paul Giamatti's policeman Inspector Uhl, who greatly admires the man's work despite his loyalty to a skeptical royal, Rufus Sewell's Crown Prince Leopold. It's great to see Sewell again, who once showed much promise in genre classics like Dark City before essentially disappearing for a period. The confrontation between Leopold and Eisenstein is revealed in a broken narrative, as we are shown early on that Eisenstein is arrested during a striking act of visual magic.
Come to find out, the girl intended as Leopold's betrothed is none other than Eisenstein's lost love (Sophie's adult version is portrayed by Jessica Biel), and the magician tries both to regain her love and confound his foe. Leopold's veracity seems even more focused on unveiling Eisenstein's fraud than on romantic passion for his future bride, and although he ultimately meets an end that may play as harsh, the protagonists are written well enough that we forgive them their potentially excessive actions.
The nature of the magic in the film is kept close to Burger's sleeve, as one isn't sure of its legitimacy until late in the film. Eisenstein's tricks are beautifully rendered, and one of the first we see is the miraculous birth and subsequent growth of a miniature fruit tree. Later, when a haggard, forlorn Eisenstein (and it's here that Norton truly outdoes himself) expresses his torment by summoning spirits onstage in an attempt to conjure his deceased love, it's truly amazing stuff.
Halfway during watching this film, it struck me that I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to see it again - even though I hadn't finished it yet. It certainly wasn't because of the 'twist', which was apparently the big draw of the film for the rest of the world. Paul Giamatti's revelation at the end of the film merely confirmed what I suspected all along. In fact, one of Norton's lines of dialogue pretty much spills the twist early on. The only thing he could have done to spell it out even clearer was to wink at the camera while speaking it.
That said, the twist was immaterial to my enjoyment of this film. In fact, its failure to surprise me actually enhanced my enjoyment of the experience, and added to the verisimilitude and feel of classic literature being brought to life. Since twists in turn of the century novels wouldn't be too hard to figure out either, by not trying to exaggerate the shock factor The Illusionist maintained a quaint, effective feel. It's here that I believe it trumps the Prestige in maintaining an efficient yet potent script without the need to snake around - constantly tangling the story threads into a needlessly complex cat's cradle.
The Illusionist has some striking images (such as a shot from below of Paul Giamatti striding down the deer head-laden walls of Leopold's hallways) and a remarkably effective score by Philip Glass, who I usually find to be either heavy handed (The Hours) or downright annoying (his modern score for the classic Dracula). It's a film that haunted me, a feat that I must honor by placing it in my top five for the year.