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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Truth in the Illusion?
by Donald Levit

Billed primarily as “a supernatural mystery,” The Illusionist tidies up that aspect of itself only at a final delicious flip to tickle the public as much as it does the married police inspector, rewarding true love that endures and punishing an overreaching villain in an ironic fitting trap. More, the film is part fairy tale appropriately set in misty woods and a fin de siècle Hapsburg Vienna (filmed in Prague and Berlin) enhanced by golden brown tones of the Lumières’ early color process autochrome and painterly touches from Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian legend and their founder Millais’ Ophelia. It considers the nature of the “gift, either way, truth or fraud,” of magic and the belief in it, as opposed to plain old imposture.

Regarding politics and life-death, despite a lame balcony disclaimer, its rational inspector hits it on the head for adult children in the film’s stage audience as well as viewers of the film: “perhaps there’s truth in the illusion.” What, after all, are life and art about if not sleight-of-eye, where does what we believe we perceive merge with what is “out there”?

Scripting under option time pressure, director Neil Burger added complexity through two new characters to Steven Millhauser’s bare 1989 short story and, indispensable to how we see this rich tale, greatly expanded the rudimentary rôle of Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). A butcher’s son who has managed to rise within the non-meritocracy under Emperor Franz Joseph, and for whom there is the carrot of yet bigger prospects, he is the one who has heretofore partaken of corruption in obeying orders but will come to grow in stature in observing and assessing personalities and situations.

The good man’s background comes out no more than slightly, in unobtrusive pieces, and his voice-over narration is so uniquely subtle, occasionally segueing into dialogue, that it is accepted, as he becomes our guide and surrogate in mis- or half-understanding before finally appreciating the light. Without this calm man, there could be no cinematic center from which to evaluate the opaque single-minded character and ends of the title figure.

So almost seamlessly does it all fit together as reality of illusion, that for one of those rare times an opening frame is actually useful, then forgotten, then closed. On a virtually bare stage a tieless vandyked seated man stretches forth his right hand to raise the shade of a female, of whom the rapt audience screams, “It’s her, she wants to tell us something.” But the wraith fades, and, having been in attendance, Uhl reports to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) who seeks any pretext to suppress future performances by exposing this Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) as public fraud or agitator.

A dabbler himself admiring an unfathomable professional, Uhl has no hard evidence and, “who knows what actually happened,” can only recount hearsay regarding the suspect’s boyhood as humble cabinetmaker’s son Edward (Aaron Johnson), his introduction to occult powers and an aborted romance with a neighbor of noble birth (Eleanor Tomlinson). Now it is the present fifteen years later, where, back from travels in the East, dapper Eisenheim entrances the capital with impossible theater manipulations of “life and death, space and time, fate and chance.”

Selfish and, rumor has it, guilty of deadly abuses in private, heir apparent Leopold attends, cynically disbelieves, volunteers his beautiful intended duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) as a stage assistant, and orders the conjurer to a command performance at his sumptuous hunting lodge. Using the prince’s bejeweled sword to do a trick, and make a point, the urbane man of mystery is nowhere blatant enough to endanger himself. Behind the transparent but supposedly necessary “Austrian” accents, we the audience realize at once what the relationships are, where the players come from. Though “very clever,” Leopold cannot quite place his unease and, palace plotter himself, masks it as a desire to quell incipient anti-monarchical democratic rumblings.

The tool for this, helped by comic underlings and already compromised in royal schemings, Uhl is skeptical but, unconvinced, doggedly carries out his job. Even when both real lovers embrace their destined union, there are insuperable impediments. A murder appears to end all chance whatsoever. But the inspector continues, even as his conscience leans away, and, more practical than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s earlier also butterfly-Artist of the Beautiful, Eisenheim-Edward chooses to discomfit his enemies on their own ground.

Earlier, he had told Sophie that “I gave [Leopold] what he asked for.” “I don’t want anything,” Uhl will eventually reply to his employer’s “what do you want?” which question mirrors his own eliciting Eisenheim’s answer, “just to be with her.” But how? Wait and see. And enjoy the fun of being rewardingly beguiled. 

(Released by Yari Film Group and rated "PG-13" for some sexuality and violence.)

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