"There's no trick they haven't seen," a police detective muses about Vienna's well-entertained royalty at the turn of the 20th century. And the same might be said of filmgoers today. Certainly, Neil Burger's moody bit of Victoriana, The Illusionist, is constructed from familiar archetypes and storylines. Yet, even as its pieces fit together inelegantly, this romantic mystery dares to intrigue.
Adapted from a short story by Stephen Millhauser, the tale revolves around a love triangle: a poor-boy-turned-magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) who loves Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), who is destined to wed Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim's wondrous illusions catch the eye of Leopold, setting these three characters on a well-mannered collision course. Monitoring from the outside is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
The film is aided immeasurably by Burger's evocation of fin-de-siècle Vienna (for which Prague stands in): misty forests, murky gaslight, and exquisite costumes and sets. The prince's hallway of horns may be patently obvious, but it's a fair demonstration of Victorian excess.
Ironically, the love affair that spurs the film's action is so trite royalty and commoner fall in love as class-free children that it's no wonder Burger barely fleshes it out. For all the inherent drama, Biel and Norton appear quite dispassionate together, though Norton brings a palpable intensity to his illusion act, and his off-stage defense of it.
The film is sustained by more provocative threads, such as the splash of class-conflict among our players. Likewise, the story occurs at a heady historical time, when there was great interest in science and an intellectual curiosity about the supernatural. Thus the magician is introduced to audiences with tantalizing pronouncements "from the farthest corner of the world, where the dark arts still hold sway " and his tricks rely upon an inherent conflict between spirituality and rationality.
Eisenheim's illusions, which utilize lantern slides to transform light and shadow into three-dimensional images, are a jab at our own continued embrace of such "magic." We may reckon we're smarter than the slack-jawed audience in long-ago Vienna, but we're parked rapt in front of the same light-as-reality gimmick. (That said, some of the film's magic tricks would be more impressive and less spell-breaking if the CGI effects weren't so obvious.)
Magic, for all its mystical hoo-hah, is rooted in the physical the practice of misdirection. And it's here that Burger takes his most critical stumble, for I had no trouble discerning how the film's grandest illusion occurred. There's a fine line between fairly letting the viewer see all the pieces and having it be too easy to sort out. I'd like to have been left gasping at the film's end, not muttering "duh."
Rating: 2.5 projectors