The Illusionist

Help, my twist ending is so obvious
Neil Burger
Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell
The Setup: 
Magician in Vienna annoys the Crown Prince by stealing his girl.

My friend who often gets in moods where we wants to see something “interesting” and “of quality” didn’t want to go see Snakes on a Plane, so we settled on this one, which I had heard was only partially interesting and only of semi-quality, but nonetheless….

The deal is that Edward Norton as Eisenheim and Jessica Biel as Sophie were bestest buds in childhood, even though she was of royal lineage and he’s a pauper or whatever, and then he went away and got all trained as a magician and came back. Also during this time we have become aware of the breathless, romantic score by Philip Glass, and the way the movie is purposely trying to ape the look and conventions of early silent films in a sort of Guy Maddin way, only half as pretentious and nauseating [and, it must be said, about half as rewarding].

You must also know that, the last we saw this pair as kids, they were hiding out, about to be found, when Sophie asked Eisenheim to make them disappear. Of course he couldn’t, which I’m sure like haunted him all his life and whatnot, and please, if you can see from this rather large narrative device at the beginning some glimpse of what’s going to happen at the end, well, what can I say? Just don’t think about it.

So Rufus Sewell as the Crown Prince [CP] comes to Eisenheim’s show with the beautiful Sophie at his side. Sophie and Eisenheim recognize each other, and are still hot and bothered for each other. Eisenheim does an amazing illusion, which gets him invited to the Crown Prince’s. The next day he has a little assignation with Sophie, wherein they renew their friendship, later discovering that this meeting was watched by the police who tell Eisenheim to stay away from here. Then he has his performance at the Crown Prince’s, where the prince makes little digs at him [“impress us, if you can”], and he makes kind of an ass out of the CP by creating a sword-in-the-stone kind of illusion and not letting the CP win.

I’ll mention at this point that, despite all the press this movie got about presenting mostly real magic tricks, unfettered by CGI, almost everything here [save for a few common coin-behind-the-ear kind of tricks] looks to be all-CGI. Maybe it’s not, and it’s all much more authentic than I realize, but it sure didn’t look that way to me.

Things go on with Eisenheim and Sophie seeing each other in secret, and the CP being pissed and making Paul Giamatti as the chief of police have several talks with the magician. So Sophie and Eisenheim are going to run away together, until she tells the CP this and he seemingly murders her. Then we go through all this “investigation / corruption” muckety-muck, until Eisenheim comes back with a new trick, which is to wholly resurrect real spirits to appear on stage. This causes a sensation in the audience and makes Eisenheim a powerful figure in society. The shit hits the fan when he brings the spirit of Sophie, and the audience starts asking her if the CP killed her.

The CP is ordering Giamatti to arrest Eisenheim, but eventually Giamatti grows a prick and stands up to him, arresting him for murder, which leads to the CP’s suicide. Then, at the very end, Giamatti realizes that Eisenheim staged Sophie’s death and his her away somewhere [in essence making her “disappear,” as he could not do at the beginning], and engineered the CP’s fall from grace and arrest. So at the end they’re together and happy.

Now, if you’ve seen a movie before and / or read a little Shakespeare, it’s not hard to guess that Sophie wasn’t really killed, that this will be Eisenheim’s supreme illusion, and that the two of them will end up together. So once you know this, the last half of the movie [with its many tangents and twists] gets a little boring, as none of it really means much of anything. [I will mention that my movie companion, who has seen a lot of movies AND is conversant with Shakespeare, did NOT know that somehow she would still be alive.] So this all resulted in my feeling upon walking out of the movie, that the first half was fairly amusing, but being able to discern the secret of the second half made it considerably less interesting.

However, my estimation of the movie diminished overnight the more I thought about little details that didn’t quite add up. For example, how exactly did Eisenheim create these full spirits on stage? There is a cursory explanation given about early motion pictures and steam, but what they show as this technique is clearly not the same thing as what Eisenheim can do. And if we ARE to understand that this is how he did it, then it’s bad faith to show us a CGI-created spirit that looks perfect, but later claim it’s a primitive technique that looks terrible. Also annoying is that a major piece of evidence against the CP, this locket Sophie wore, is first seen glinting in the straw of their [regularly-used] stables and, what seems like two months later, IS STILL THERE. What, the guy doesn’t have his stables cleaned at all? One thing that’s kind of amusing in an evil way is that when you look back you realize that the CP didn’t really kill her, and thus Eisenheim, our hero, essentially framed and ruined an innocent man. But we’ve been told that the CP was mounting a power-grab and that he beats his girlfriends, so we still feel that he deserves to die and don’t care much that he was the victim of a frame job.

The performances were good. I had read a number of reviews say that Norton is just an emotionless blank through the film, but I think those critics didn’t understand that he was playing a character who is very controlled and emotionally reserved. To me he was very convincing and full of feeling. He also looks the part, with his long legs and squinty, Edward Gorey-esque look. Biel is better than I expected [my main impression of her coming from Stealth, where she offers extensive narration to her flaming descent from the upper atmosphere], and Giamatti is very good and, dare I say it, even a little cute. Sewell is good at conveying slowly simmering rage, and it’s just nice to see him again after so long.

Overall, amusing fluff, suitable for wasting time. Like I said, if you figure out the secret halfway through, which isn’t that difficult, you will probably be considerably less interested in the second half, and may in fact turn against the movie altogether.

Should you watch it: 

If you need to kill some time and you’ve exhausted all of the better movies out there.