The Illusionist (2006)
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Plot: At the end of the 19th century, well-known magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) amazes the whole city of Vienna with his impressive magical abilities, but his life is about to change as he encounters his childhood friend Sophie, Duchess Von Teschen (Jessica Biel).
The Illusionist is set against the backdrop of Vienna during the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century. The film starts with the ending, ensuring we immediately meet Eisenheim (Norton) when the camera focuses on his face, thus bringing our attention to his character and making it clear that he’s the central character in the story. Immediately afterwards we are introduced to Eisenheim’s nemesis, Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti). The focus of the story is on Eisenheim’s relationship with the young Sophie, better known as Duchess Von Teschen (Biel) and is told by Uhl almost from the start, as he’s relating the main events of Eisenheim’s life to the Crown Prince (Sewell). The latter is, in fact, Eisenhem’s real opponent, mainly because he sees him as a charlatan as well as a threat to his future as an emperor. The Prince’s personality is presented as, and portrayed to be, a bit over the top, with his paranoia and craziness being a bit absurd and unbelievable. This is, of course, largely because of the story by Millhauser, but it still isn’t convincing.
The whole story is told as a flashback from Uhl’s telling of the events. This is a clever technique that guides you through the journey right up until the point you see the opening sequence again; a ring composition. This technique is not so frequently used in contemporary cinema, and in The Illusionist the sequence at the end of the film is prolonged in an attempt to better explain the events to the viewer after the disclosure of the story. This enhanced the reception of the movie and credit must be given to the editor for this.
While watching the film you get the impression that it’s all in Uhl’s mind and that maybe he draws his conclusion and explanations of the events just by watching some details or things that he believed to be proof of his theory. Uhl is also a big fan of Eisenheim’s work and he’s clearly reluctant to investigate him or certainly arrest him, but the Crown Prince’s orders and the need to perform his duty force him to, which again suggests a slightly skewed take on the story itself. Uhl and Eisenheim’s relationship in the film is crucial to the plot; you can never tell if Eisenheim has respect for Uhl, while the latter seems to deeply admire him. This is because of how, most of the time, Eisenheim seems annoyed and almost disgusted by Uhl’s insistence upon blindly following the Crown Prince’s orders – sometimes he seems to be playing him. Nevertheless, I immediately thought that Uhl was as important in the story as Eisenheilm because he equally contributes to its development and helps us to figure it all out as well (although we do only see Uhl’s version of it and what he thinks has happened, which could be a case for the character being the real centrepiece of the narrative).
Magic is an essential feature of the story and its elements of mystery, and the feeling of being in some sort of dreamscape is underlined by the use of old cinema techniques, like the iris effect or screen mask, which were all devices used mostly during the silent film era and at the origins of cinema. They were often used as a cutting method or to emphasise a character and his/her importance. In this film, for example, we are showed the iris for the first time just after inspector Uhl ends his narration of Eisenheim’s childhood. This emphasises that this will be the key of the entire story later on. With the plot centering mostly upon Eisenheim’s life and his relationship with Sophie, as well as on inspector Uhl’s investigations, the director and his editor were very clear in this message through their use of the camera and the movie’s varying effects. The shot that introduces Eisenheim, for example, is focused on the character’s feet before making its way up his body and focusing on his face with a close-up, ensuring we feel the importance of his debut. Similarly, there is a sequence where Eisenheim challenges the Crown Prince and by doing so he also troubles love-interest Sophie. When the pair confront one another regarding the matter, the scene plays almost in slow motion while the camera focuses on Sophie’s face, rather than Eisenheim’s. This is an indicator for the increased complexity of the story from that moment on and the increasingly complicated nature of the pair’s relationship, as they move into the dangerous territory of wanting nothing more than to be with each other. This relationship is pivotal, as this is what sets the whole plot in motion and what eventually brings it to an end.
The importance of Sophie’s presence is further emphasised by the use of lighting. For example, when Sophie volunteers for Eisenheim in the theatre there’s always light – the theatre is considerably brighter if compared to the next theatre Eisenheim will work in – and this subtle change highlights the brightness that Sophie brought to his life and the sadness in which he lives in after he’s lost her. At the end of the film when Uhl is shown to be understanding, or at least thinks he has understood Eisenheim’s plans, bright lighting reappears in Uhl’s imagination, which conjures up a scene featuring the two lovers finally happy. However, we are always brought to question whether what we see is real or not, and even in the end we aren’t sure if what we see is actually what happened. I think that was the main goal of the film and it achieves it quite well, although it could be puzzling and ultimately frustrating for anyone who likes clarity. It is presented as if Uhl’s conclusion is that everything was a trick, but given the filmmakers’ insistence upon having us question everything, not least Uhl’s recollection, it’s difficult to tell whether this was truly the case.
Overall, I enjoyed this film and was pleasantly surprised by the entire cast’s excellent performances. Jessica Biel was very good as the young and troubled Duchess von Teschen and I didn’t expect that since it was a different role form the ones she’d played before. Paul Giamatti’s performance was remarkable not least because of how different it was from other roles that he has performed throughout his career, and lead star Edward Norton was typically impressive. It was very interesting to see this selection of actors challenge themselves with something new and perhaps hadn’t experienced before, and it certainly helped to improve my reception of the film.
In contrast, the portrayal of Crown Prince Leopold – which seems to have been inspired by the real Crown Prince Rudolf – seemed a bit far fetched. As is the case with any film, the characters are a product of the screenwriters, actors and directors’ imagination, but it seemed way over the top that a person in such a position would be as eternally jealous of a magician as he was portrayed to be in this movie.
Conclusively, the film felt very long. The run-time is actually 110minutes, but the plot feels stretched to fill the time and could have easily been narrowed to a more accessible 90 minutes. This is mostly due to how the story simply revolves around the relationship of two characters and the obstacles they have to overcome, and the construction of that story is not nearly as entertaining or fascinating as the classic movies it is clearly inspired by despite the director’s admirable attempts to have the film look and feel like one. From the opening credits it is clear as to the style of the picture you are about to watch – vintage effects, the presentation of real photographs and the choice of orchestral music reminiscent of the romantic age – but the film must be interpreted as a magic trick in itself and will therefore not provide the clarity that some may seek. For these reasons, I give this film…
I'm particularly passionate about British and German cinema, and I'm a sucker for a good old war film.