Conjuring Cinematic Enchantments
There is magic in The Illusionist, and I don’t mean merely the magic of stage conjurers, like the character this wonderfully mysterious and dreamy film turns on. There is movie magic, of the type that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place: for creating illusions that suck you in and keep you enchanted even though the rational part of your brain insists it’s all fakery, it’s only a trick. The emotional lobe of your brain, though… it’s the seduction of that part of your mind that gets you hooked and keeps you hooked. And The Illusionist is masterfully seductive, walking a tightrope between a thrilling peculiarness that’s just this side of out-and-out weird and a fervent romanticism not just of the love-and-sex variety but of a faraway wistfulness for long-ago times and places too beautiful, surely, to have ever been real. It entices you with a hint of storytelling danger — you’re never quite sure whether it’s going to stay on the conventional straight and narrow or whether it will veer off into the truly uncanny. And the greatest thrill of the movie may be that it finds a, well, magic middle ground where it could actually please everyone, where it’s just strange enough to electrify fans of the bizarre and just effortless enough to satisfy those who merely seek a diverting entertainment.
That’s a damn impressive step up for filmmaker Neil Burger, who made the chilling but challenging micro-indie Interview with the Assassin a few years back and here takes on his first major film (for the producers of last year’s Oscar surprise Crash). Working from his own expanded adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” he creates a vision of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century that is half phantasm and half history, that plays with concepts of class distinction starting to disappear as an old world gives way to a new, that teases us by playing in a borderland between science and the supernatural as new modes of rational thinking were coming to the fore. Eisenheim — Edward Norton (Kingdom of Heaven, The Italian Job) is brilliantly cast and turns in yet another sublimated but impassioned performance — is a stage performer of tricks and illusions, a man who has traveled to “the farthest corners of the world, where the dark arts still hold sway” to learn his craft, and Burger is shrewd enough to make such histrionic dialogue both a little bit of a joke that we sophisticated 21st-century consumers of entertainment can appreciate as mere marketing but also part of the warp and weft of the fanciful tapestry he’s weaving — you cannot help but be captivated by it as Eisenheim’s Vienna audiences are. As we watch Eisenheim’s conjurations, we’re simultaneously Penn-and-Teller-fed cynics who know it’s all bullshit and we’re willing fools whose breath is taken away in spite of ourselves. More than once Burger drew huge grins of delight out me, even though I was aware of two levels of illusion, that of Eisenheim’s fakery as well as that of the filmmaker’s: it’s that magical.
It’s about our willingness to be fooled by movies, is what it is. Cuz there are things you might guess, if you follow closely as Eisenheim’s tale becomes intertwined with that of the lovely Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel: Stealth, Blade: Trinity), the intended of Leopold, the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell: Tristan & Isolde, Helen of Troy). See, Eisenheim, the son of a cabinetmaker, and Sophie, the daughter of aristocrats, were childhood friends ripped apart when their tentative and tender young romance was discovered by their elders, but when he returns to Vienna after all those years of traveling to strange and remote countries, their ardor is rekindled and, geez, the Crown Prince is a real drag, anyway. Suffice to say that he’s not happy about the wandering of his fiancée and gets his lapdog, police Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti: Lady in the Water, The Ant Bully) — son of a butcher — on Eisenheim’s case.
What happens next? I’ll never tell the secrets of The Illusionist, but I will say that there’s lots of delicious interplay between the skeptical prince and the “wizard who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unholy powers,” plenty of tweaking of the ironies of upper-crustery and working-class-ness, and much enticing usage of superstition and unreasonable fear to pull off some very rational tricks. You might guess, even as you get seduced by The Illusionist, what else is to come and how it will resolve itself, but even that cannot spoil the spell Burger and his wonderful performers cast over us. Because the magic here is in more than just pulling off an illusion — it’s in making us forget that we know how it’s done.