In a gauzy flashback, a peasant boy, an amateur magician, carves a locket for the high-born girl he loves. It’s a tiny wooden oval, cut in half diagonally; the halves can be rotated to form a heart. Then the heart can slide open, revealing, inside, a photograph of the boy. The boy and the girl are parted by circumstance, but she will secretly wear the locket into adulthood.
The problem with the locket is that it’s impossible. The illusion is accomplished with an edit. In fact, all of the magic tricks in the film The Illusionist are impossible – unless high-powered lasers, holograms, and anti-gravity devices were available in the early 1900′s. The greater illusion, that we are watching a lush period piece, is also strained. The costumes and art direction are definitely on a budget — $17 million, to be more precise. But consider: that’s less than is spent marketing many movies. I watched with a lot of good will.
The poor boy travels the world, developing his craft. He returns to Vienna as the masterful Eisenheim the Illusionist, played by Edward Norton. Norton is neat and economical in the role; instead of stealing scenes, as he has done so many times in the past, he yields the screen to others. The rich girl fills out to become Dutchess Sophie von Teschen, played by Jessica Biel, who is more ample than able. When the film calls for her to render an emotion other than "pretty," another edit comes in handy to place a fake tear upon her cheek, which blushes not with youth and afterglow, but with rouge.
Rekindling their romance is a dangerous thing for Eisenheim and Sophie. She is all but promised to the Machievellian Crown Prince Leopold, Rufus Sewell, who is rumored to beat his girlfriends; perhaps he even threw one off a balcony to her death. An entire hallway of his castle is festooned with dozens and dozens of heads, from the wild game he’s shot (a friend of mine said, "When you’re decorating, just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should.") Sophie knows that Leopold has plans to overthrow his father, the Emperor; and Leopold is aware than Eisenheim and Sophie took a suspicious carriage ride together.
If Eisenheim is going to effect Sophie’s disappearance, and his own, it has to be now – and it must be under the watchful eye of Leopold’s Chief Inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti. Uhl has been promised the mayorship of Vienna when the Crown Prince ascends to the throne. A trial of wits between him and Eisenheim ensues. But we suspect, from Giamatti’s puppy dog eyes, that he is a good man who would like Eisenheim to get away with it. Maybe an actor with a better poker face, or at least some darker shading, would have added some urgency and mystery.
On the one hand, magic tricks performed with computer graphics are sorely lacking in magic. But consider: what is CG but a conjurer’s art, and what are movies, if not illusions? Sometimes a willing suspension of disbelief can be deliberately willed. See if you can forgive the visible seams in costume and art direction, and the uninspired imagery of cinematographer Dick Pope. Forgive the American cast for their bad accents. Forgive that only a half dozen of writer/director Neil Burger’s scenes really work. Forgive all this, because you can tell everyone was trying his best. If you’re willing to squint a little, it comes off.
The Illusionist is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast, by visiting wtiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.