WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Childhood sweethearts Eisenheim and Sophie are parted because the young man, a talented magician, is of humble origins whereas the girl is of noble birth. Some years later, Eisenheim returns to Vienna as a brilliant illusionist, amazing audiences including the Crown Prince and his intended bride, Duchess von Teschen. That is, Sophie von Teschen. When Sophie is apparently murdered, it falls to Police Inspector Uhl – a keen amateur magician himself – to track down the responsible party.
First of all, there are major spoilers ahead so if you’d like to see this film uninformed, avert your eyes now. All gone? Okay, on with the show! It’s the late nineteenth century in Vienna and a young boy obsessed with magic tricks attracts the eye of Sophie, a girl from a wealthy family. The two fall in love in their secret hideaway, but the boy’s skills cannot make the couple disappear and Sophie is forcefully taken away. Fifteen years later, the boy has become Eisenheim the Illusionist (Ed Norton), a brilliant magician wowing Viennese audiences, including police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). When Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) sees the show and commands his intended bride to partake in an illusion, little does he know what he’s getting himself into; for the woman is none other than Sophie (Jessica Biel). Although Uhl and the Prince’s spies are everywhere, Sophie runs into Eisenheim’s arms and away from Leopold’s notorious cruelty.
Tragically, soon after informing Leopold of her intentions to leave him, Eisenheim finds Sophie’s body in a river, apparently slain by a sword. The magician’s show is shut down, but he soon comes back with a new spectacular where he apparently summons the spirits of the deceased into his theatre. The ‘ghosts‘ include Sophie, and although Uhl is ordered to shut Eisenheim down again, he is thwarted by the illusionist’s ardent fans, his own fascination with the tricks, and a growing belief in the Viennese public’s suspicions that the Prince was responsible for Sophie’s murder.
Like Deep Impact and Armageddon, or The Full Monty and Brassed Off, The Illusionist has an obvious twin in the shape of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, since they both trade on the curious rituals of turn of the century magic shows, a time (just before moving pictures took over) when spectacular theatre could still captivate audiences. But the comparisons hold on the surface only, because whereas The Prestige asks searching questions on the themes of ambition and sacrifice, The Illusionist is content to play on the look of the magic show and use it as the background to a disappointingly shallow and predictable love story.
For while the explanation of how the illusions are performed in The Prestige is pretty far-fetched, at least it tries. The key illusion in The Illusionist is Eisenheim’s apparent summoning of spirits, including a small boy and, crucially, Sophie. The film gestures at a possible explanation using cinema projections, and there is a trick known as ’Pepper’s Ghost’ which can produce an ethereal form. What it can’t produce is anything approaching the talking, moving colour apparitions that march through Eisenheim’s theatre. The amazing rapid growth of an orange tree is also clumsily done, using CGI when, since the trick is a genuine 19th century one, a decent replica would have been far more convincing.
Furthermore, The Illusionist is encumbered with a few regrettable facets that stopped me taking the film as seriously as director Neil Burger would have liked me to. The film is shot with a warm semi-sepia glow that makes everything look nice and rosy, but much of the film feels fake, from Vienna’s uncannily clean streets to much of the facial hair on display (I know some of it is intentionally fake). The actors’ accents, too, range from Allo Allo Teutonic to plain English, sometimes within individual performances. Norton seems to be impersonating Michael Schumacher and Giamatti, his accent wandering over most of Northern Europe, actually says ‘I am an officer of the lieu’ at one point, I can only hope in homage to Clouseau.
The acting itself is up and down: Norton – Formula 1 impression notwithstanding – makes for an effectively intense showman, Giamatti displays hangdog affability and Rufus Sewell is tremendously boo-hiss, even though there’s very little nuance to his character. Biel, whom I’ve not seen before, displays a lot of lips and teeth and not much acting talent.
And then there’s the twist. We never actually see Sophie’s murder, only the drunk Crown Prince chasing her into stables and her limp body riding away on a horse. When Sophie is dragged out of the river, Uhl is only allowed a cursory inspection of her body before it’s taken away (pedants might ask ‘wot no funeral?’, but let’s not dwell). All very tragic, but ever since The Sixth Sense we’ve been primed to question what we don’t see as much as what we do; and when an illusionist just happens to be close at hand – an illusionist with a vested interest in keeping Sophie away from danger – it’s almost instinctive to go ‘hang on a minute…’ You might well be astonished by the film’s big reveal (in Wild Things-fashion, there’s a whole ‘this is how we did it’ sequence), but if you are you might want to ask yourself why you didn’t cotton on a bit sooner.
Whether or not you guess where it’s going, you can choose to look on The Illusionist as a grand romance, a quasi-mystical tale of love and ingenuity conquering all. If you do, you’ll probably like the film and enjoy Norton, Giamatti and even panto baddie Sewell’s performances. You may even tolerate Philip Glass’ incessantly busy score. You’ll certainly be a kinder and more generous soul than me, because whilst The Illusionist is pretty, it’s fundamentally tosh. Still, pretty tosh is better than ugly tosh like Giamatti’s nadir, Lady in the Water.