The events of Neil Burger’s The Illusionist begin with a love triangle between a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), Crowned Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and his future bride Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel) and gradually expand to include murder, conspiracy, and political intrigue. It’s a weirdly hybridized feature of fascinating scope. The way it bounces around from soft lit love scenes to grim criminal investigations to fanciful exploits of magic and mystery plays such tricks on the eyes, that the whole film feels illusory.
In truth, it does have some of the elements of a “big twist” thriller, but to measure its value by the potency of the gut punch surprise conclusion (which I found to not be particularly punchy) would discount its various other, more interesting attributes. I don’t believe it works as a thriller. Any film with the ego to suppose that it has the ability to trick and deceive the audience needs some more audacious turns than this one provides.
The film’s real magic is its hazy romanticism. It beautifully depicts early 19th century Vienna in ornate detail and utilizes the setting to accentuate the soulful fairytale within. Deceit and old-fashioned villainy abound as Eisenheim finds him up against a corrupt leader prone to exploiting his people for his own personal benefit. The power struggle between Eisenheim and Leopold becomes more than just a war for Sophie’s affection. It is the catalyst for a political upheaval of sorts and leads to many a death and betrayal by the time the credits roll.
As Eisenheim, Norton transmits a muted sense of superiority as he quietly outwits everyone around him. He’s a character who represses vocal outburst in even the most pressing of situations and chooses instead to accomplish what he desires without the knowledge of his chosen target. Rufus Sewell is a truly wonderful villain. He conversely keeps his rage always at the surface with enough petty outbursts to truly evoke the audience’s disgust. The best work here is actually by Paul Giamatti playing an occasionally daft, but wholly sincere character who appears auxiliary at first, but turns out to be vital to the film’s final illusion.