The Illusionist

Nothing is what it seems.” So reads the tagline for the 2006 film The Illusionist. Few slogans are so aptly written for their films. We’re treated to a piece of fiction in which the entire film seems to share an essence with a masterful stage illusion. Smoke and mirrors lie just outside the frame, we’re distracted by the tale, while just beneath the surface we miss the mechanics of the illusion. The illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is one of the most renowned magicians in all of Austria, if not the world. His ability draws the attention of the Crown Prince Leopold who becomes fascinated with his work. Eisenheims mysterious past is brought partially to light by the fact that Leopold’s (almost) betrothed, Sophie, is actually his lost love. The Police inspector (Paul Giamatti) is hired to keep this unruly magician under control; a task that becomes increasingly difficult as both his own wonder, and that of the Austrian peoples, grow to revere the famed magician.
     There is so much subtext and foreshadowing in this film that I would hate to give anything away for those that haven’t seen it. The setting and tone for this movie is incredibly fun.  Turn-of-the-century Vienna, dark and mysterious shots and to top it off it’s about a magician facing off against a crowned prince. It’s dangerously close to The Prestige a movie that gained far more traction (arguably because it’s a better movie) and was released the same year. While this film boasts a very talented cast (particularly in Norton and Paul Giamatti) it was no match for the huge names associated with The Prestige, which, as my dad put it after seeing the trailer, looked to be “Wolverine vs Batman”. Still, this film, though overshadowed, is by no means a bad movie; It’s not even an average movie, it’s really good. The story is told mostly through the police inspectors eyes, leaving the audience in the seat of a spectator at a world class magic show.
     The emotions and motives of the characters is a strong selling point for this film, especially with such a strong cast. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) displays such frustration at the fact that he is being subtly defied by a commoner, but his arrogance will not allow him to admit defeat, even in something as simple as not knowing how a trick is done. The Prince has everything to lose, not because of Eisenheims actions necessarily, but because of his own brash actions against situations beyond his control. All the while, Eisenheim has everything to gain, but wants only one thing, perhaps the only thing that seems to be out of his grasp, his beloved Sophie.
      The visual aspect of the movie is almost dream like, again, adding to the feeling that this whole thing is one big illusion, a showy spectacle to distract us while very well thought out actions and consequences take place just below the surface of the story. We are kept in the dark, but we are also kept on the edge of our seat. What starts as a simple love story unfolds into a revolution. Power becomes the driving force. Everyone in this film is striving for power over others. Eisenheim, though the hero, strives to demonstrate power and rebellion over the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince feels a necessity to demonstrate his power over almost everyone through intimidation. The police inspector longs for more power by aligning himself with the Crown Prince, even when it goes against his conscience. This power that is so greatly craved seems to come from one source. Knowing the truth, yet choosing to withhold it and distract from it; just like a magic trick.
The movie, while not obscure, has been vastly overlooked, more so than it deserves. It is a unique artifact. It uses everything to draw the viewer into it’s overall magical theme and whimsical tones. The visuals, musical score, character, emotions and plot all come together to form a cohesive and entertaining piece of film that is well worth watching.

2 comments on “The Illusionist

  1. I actually proffered The Illusionist over The Prestige. Prestige was a brilliant magic trick, cold and calculating. It was also horrifying and depressing. The Illusionist was fun, and triumphant and had tons of heart.

  2. Mark G says:

    I liked the Illusionist much more than the Prestige. In the Prestige, I had no one to root for (plus I couldn’t take the story seriously).

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