Title: The Illusionist
Play time: 1h 50min
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti
The Illusionist has a secret. The protagonist’s love interest is killed under mysterious circumstances halfway through the film, which then becomes increasingly esoteric as it shifts its focus to peripheral characters who conduct a convoluted murder investigation. If I tell you that the protagonist is an exceptionally, maybe supernaturally skilled magician, is that sufficient to guess the secret? What if I add that he and the soon-to-be-dead love interest had been kept apart for decades by a class divide?
Neil Burger Want to Keep Everyone in Mystery – The Illusionist
Of course, what happens in the end is obvious. The sad part is that it is also arbitrary: the actual method — the precise sequence of events eventually revealed in flashback — is irrelevant and not fairly guessable. Writer-director Neil Burger tries hard to maintain an air of genuine mystery, but we already know what matters. Unfortunately, the film stakes the entire last act on what is largely meaningless window dressing.
This dulls the impact of what is otherwise a rich, affecting movie, directed with an elegance that belies its “period piece” label. Burger accomplishes the feat of creating a main character who is both an utter enigma — to the point where the screenplay explicitly announces a mysterious 15 year gap in his life story — and involving at the same time. The flashback helps; we see young Eisenheim, played by an earnest Aaron Johnson, passionate, scared, unsure, with young Sophie (who grows up to become the aforementioned love interest) pleading with him to “make us disappear.” This anchors the character in our minds, informing our impression Eisenheim as an adult, played as a preternaturally self-assured showman by Edward Norton. The interaction between the two is remarkable in its importance, and also its truth: not only is Norton’s Eisenheim a perfectly believable adult version of Johnson’s teenage boy, but the fact that one turned into the other is a kind of tragedy.
Thoughts on the Bond in Between Eisenheim and Sophie
We also believe the bond between Eisenheim and Sophie, at least to the extent their affair rekindles when he suddenly shows up in Vienna and starts astonishing the populace. It would have been easy to simply show them meeting as kids then shacking up when he returns, but the movie pays attention to the details — the look on her face when she recognizes him, their surreptitious carriage ride. The film has fancy to spare, but this has little to do with things like “destiny” and “love at first sight.” They make a connection, but they have to face reality.
Burger finds a nice rhythm, underscoring his themes — classist scientific materialism versus more egalitarian faith and belief; “enlightenment” versus “trickery” and “which is the nobler pursuit?” (answer: trickery) — while remembering to propel the story forward. Eisenheim’s exhibitions are genuinely suspenseful, since Burger leaves open the possibility that the magician’s powers are in fact otherworldly; Paul Giamatti’s confounded, ineffectual rationalist tasked with investigating Eisenheim does little to relieve the tension, as the film makes clear that The Illusionist is perpetually in control.
Why Burger Apprehended The Illusionist from Emotions?
I suppose it makes sense, then, that the third act opts for story sleight-of-hand, but it sacrifices emotional resonance for a shallow trick. It cheats a little, too — when the film ends, consider the careful editing of the opening scene — but that’s ultimately less upsetting than the general approach it takes. The Illusionist manages to convince us that its characters and its story matter, then resolves them in away that doesn’t.