The Illusionist is a strange story that is part The Usual Suspects, part Masterpiece Theatre. Set in turn of the century Vienna, the story mixes political intrigue, love and magic into a sparkling confection that mesmerizes the eye and the mind.
Ed Norton plays Eisenheim the Illusionist, a stage magician who possesses powers greater than any of his contemporaries. He is tall, elegant and mysterious. In one elaborate trick—which is based on an actual illusion performed by the legendary Robert Houdin—an orange tree grows on stage, bears fruit and for the finale, two butterflies fly from the tree carrying a handkerchief previously borrowed from an audience member.
When the magician baffles and embarrasses a member of the royal family—who also happens to be engaged to his childhood sweetheart—Eisenheim’s act comes under the scrutiny of the power hungry Inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti. Like Eisenheim’s magical orange tree the story blossoms before our eyes, but keeping it’s inner workings under wraps. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and director Neil Burger skillfully juggles the murder mystery, mystical and magical elements of the story.
Edward Norton hands in his usual adroit performance as Eisenheim. Smooth and polished, his portrayal of the magician is powerful, with the only major problem being the bizarre accent he uses. It may be historically correct, but it sounds too mannered and prissy.
In a story full of wonder, it is Paul Giamatti who really amazes. As Inspector Uhl Giamatti completely sheds the Joe-Schmo persona that marks his most famous roles and delivers a polished portrait of a power hungry man who will not let the truth stand in the way of climbing up the political ladder. He plays a policeman, who ironically, steals the movie from the rest of the cast.
The Illusionist is a rarity, an independent period piece. The film was made on a budget, and was budgeted at a fraction of what a comparable Hollywood film would cost, but you would never know it. It is a sumptuous looking film about the nature of power and the power of people to believe in something they don’t understand.