Sitting in the theatre watching this film, you might wish you yourself were an illusionist, so that you could make yourself disappear. In fact, the title might have been more aptly called The Hypnotist, since the central couple (Edward Norton and Jessica Biel) look like they’re in a trance that prevents them from showing their real feelings. They appear to be as interested in each other as Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The story (based on the short-story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser) centres on a magician (Norton) in turn-of-the-century Vienna who is more popular with the public than with Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The prince mistrusts Eisenheim and keeps a constant eye on him via Police Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
One night, by chance, Eisenheim is reunited with his childhood love Sophie (Biel). Writer/Director Neil Burger sets up this relationship in the beginning of the film with a lazy, lengthy and uninteresting flashback to the two youngsters as children. When Eisenheim discovers that Sophie is to be married to Leopold, he sets to work using his skills of trickery to not only win her back but to destroy the prince as well.
Norton is a captivating and talented actor, producing stellar performances in Fight Club, Primal Fear and American History X, but in this film, he misses the mark completely. He plays Eisenheim as a quiet and mysterious magician when what the role really needs is passion and fire. We want to see his obsessive love for Sophie so that we can root for them to get together. What we see instead is reserve and calm, which look like boredom and indifference. Biel seems equally disinterested.
In fact, this tepidness is really the core problem of the film. The actors wander through the film as though Eisenheim has put a sleeping spell on the whole town. The stakes need to be higher and the emotions richer in almost every scene. Eisenheim’s interest in Sophie is so lukewarm you wonder why he would bother risking his entire life to be with her.
Only one actor managed to escape the sleeping curse. Giamatti shines in this film, stealing the spotlight out from under the rest of the cast with his wonderful portrayal of the goodhearted chief inspector who is torn between his commitment to the prince and his admiration of Eisenheim’s abilities. Giamatti’s performance is in fact so much more captivating than the others, he’s the only one you remember when walking out of the theatre.
One redeeming factor in the film could have been Eisenheim’s illusions. Instead of coming up with eye-popping tricks, Burger decided to use CGI to create his effects and the results are so obviously computer generated, you find yourself rolling your eyes rather than staring in awe. In one scene, two obviously phoney butterflies flutter about while holding two corners of a woman’s handkerchief. Regular, old-fashioned magic would have worked much better in this case, or at least less obvious CGI.
The costumes and settings in The Illusionist are well-done, creating a solid sense of the time period, with one glaring exception—the facial hair on the men. Sewell’s black mustache looks so fake, it could have come from a Halloween costume, and Norton’s black goatee makes him look more like the Son of Satan than a society magician.
In the end, though, all of these minor flaws could have been overlooked had the romance been intact. The fatal flaw of this film is that its core, the love relationship, is missing. Without it, we have nothing to root for and no reason to keep watching.
It’s like reaching into a magician’s top hat expecting a rabbit and finding nothing but air.
The Illusionist (2006)
Dir. Neil Burger
Stars: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell