Vienna, 1889. A magician sits on stage, his face a mask of intense concentration, his hand outstretched in a gesture of power, of summoning. A mist coalesces, begins to take on form. The audience gasps; a woman cries out that she knows the figure that has appeared. Before we can see the apparition, the chief of police stands up before the audience and announces that the magician is under arrest. Afterwards, the chief of police reports to the Crown Prince of the Austrian Empire, to recount the events that led to the magician’s arrest.
The magician is Edward Abramovich (Edward Norton). As a child (we are told through flickering sepia) he was friends with a local girl; but their social standing – she a duchess, he the son of a cabinet maker – forced them apart. Years later, Edward, now calling himself Eisenheim the Illusionist, appears in Vienna. He quickly garners popularity with the cream if Vienna society, and soon attracts the attention of the Crown Prince and his strangely familiar fiancee.
You can guess where things go from there. The Illusionist is a romantic mystery, or a mysterious romance. Eisenheim is our hero, inscrutable and intensely charismatic – a role tailor made for Norton. Eisenheim’s love is the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Biel is capable in the role, but doesn’t have much to do except simper and look pretty.
It isn’t really the romance that drives the film, anyway. No, it is the cat and mouse game played by Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Uhl and Eisenheim are cut from the same cloth – both are the sons of peasants – but while the magician has made his own way to the top of Vienna society, Uhl has ridden there on the Crown Prince’s coattails. Giamatti is one of my favourite actors, and his chief of police is a fascinatingly nuanced character; the put-upon civil servant who is pained every time his sense of duty requires him to violate his own stringent code of ethics.
The Illusionist was released a scant two months before Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and will forever suffer in comparison. But, unlike Nolan, director Neil Burger is not concerned with the mechanics of magic, which serve largely as a backdrop to the romance and the mystery. When magic does becomes Burger’s focus, it is in a broad, almost allegorical manner.
A correlation is drawn between the magic trick and the confidence trick. Magic fools a willing audience, who are entertained whilst knowing full well they are being fooled. The con dupes a mark who, at best, only realises too late that they have been duped, and is certainly not entertained. But both use sleight of hand, misdirection, and a little showmanship, and it is in that shared space that The Illusionist resides.
There is also a slight political edge to Eisenheim’s magic. Burger seems, at times, to be exploring the relationship between politics and entertainment. Everyone may know that the Crown Prince is corrupt and violent; but what can a mere peasant do about it? An entertainer, on the other hand, can shed light on the vices of the powerful; and if the law should come a-knocking, well, it’s just a show, isn’t it? It doesn’t take much imagination to see the resemblance between a 19th century stage magician and today’s entertainment industry. As Uhl remarks at one point, “Perhaps there is truth in this illusion.”
There is a timeless quality to Burger’s film. The twisty narrative evokes (although can’t better) the twisty thrillers of the ‘70s. The production has a classical feel to it, with the classical framing, classical editing, all underpinned by Philip Glass’ classical, baroque score. The genre savvy among us may be able to penetrate the illusion, but we can still admire the showmanship.