2006. Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, and Jessica Biel.
The Illusionist’s Vienna glows. Even in daylight, its luster is of candlelight glancing off mahogany, warm brick, and sandstone. At night, the scenes achieve a almost sepia-toned richness, brown but with deep blacks. Director Neil Burger and his crew shoot it with a fine-grained celluloid, and often uses the now-rarely seen iris lens that frames each shot like an old photograph in a black frame, which gives the movie an old-timey feel that’s just right for a romantically imagined 19th-century Vienna.
That, of course, is the first sleight-of-hand act in the movie. It was actually shot in Prague. (Today’s Prague apparently has some of the aged sublimity that we imagine all of Europe’s great cities once had. It’s a popular shooting location, in the same way that Toronto impersonates everything from Chicago to New York these days.) Shadows are relatively rare here—the magic “tricks” (within quotation marks because we’re not, at the end, sure how much of the magic is or isn’t real) are done onstage, unhidden, with little fanfare or fireworks.
Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) works, like the best magicians, in plain sight. He’s so straightforward that, by the middle of the movie, he doesn’t even announce his next trick. He simply treads onto the bare stage, sits down in a plain wooden chair, and convinces his audience that he’s either God or the Devil—depending on who the audience member is.
The Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) thinks Eisenheim’s the latter. He attends one of Eisenheim’s early performances but can’t figure out how the magic is done. He’s impressed by Eisenheim’s ability to hide his fraudulence but, since he can’t see how it’s created, he’s scared by it, too.
The Prince believes in truth, justice, and the Austrian way—or, at least, he wants everyone to believe that. Sewell hams it up, with a thick accent, facial tics, and ferocious glares. The character is pompous, but he casts his pomposity as righteousness. His ever-present uniform is freshly ironed, bedecked with medals, and crisp. His sword is laden with jewels. Everything about the man’s behavior radiates grandeur and the self-satisfied calm that only the truly rich can have.
Sewell’s performance resonates so sharply—they all do; more on that in a sec—because he lets us see the monster underneath the glitter, without overplaying this half. The Prince is a monarchist with progressive political ideas, but he nevertheless has a reactionary Oedipal complex and that most old-school of sick joys—beating his women. We never see his acts of rash violence—The Illusionist is too understated for that—but everyone in the movie stands on tiptoes around the man.
Ostensibly, the most wary person in the Prince’s inner circle is his fiancé, the Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel); she knows the man’s reputation. She also knows the marriage would bring Hungary and Austria together, thus solidifying the region politically. But she loves Eisenheim, and has loved him since childhood, and she does not love the Prince.
That fact, ultimately, is what urges the Prince to destroy Eisenheim. A magician who grew up as a lowly son of a cabinetmaker, and who is incidentally Jewish, cannot be the Duchess’s love. This will not do. After being humiliated twice in a row by Eisenheim’s tricks, he decides to put an end to his show, even if it means arresting the magician. The Prince’s charge is that Eisenheim is a fraud, and fraudulence—which hides the truth and trades in falsity—is damaging to the populace.
The person who’s actually wariest around the Prince, then, is the person who does his bidding—Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Uhl’s also the most careful observer of Eisenheim’s magic, and the closest thing the illusionist has to a friend, which puts Uhl in a delicate situation. Uhl, with the Prince’s help, can become chief of police, and maybe mayor of Vienna. He’s a climber.
As Giamatti plays him, though, he’s also a man of conscience. He moves brusquely, almost cockily, but with relish in the simple delight of walking and eating. His voice is deeper and rougher than in American Splendor and Sideways. His face, roly-poly but half-hidden in a thick beard and a black, wide-brimmed hat, is impish and witty. While he may move like a harrumphing linebacker, his facial gestures reveal his investigator’s intelligence. He can see him simultaneously sizing up the situation and disguising the fact that he’s doing so.
If The Illusionist is about anything, it’s about class struggle. The Prince represents the enlightened aristocracy—his reform ideas are close to, but not close enough to, democracy. Giamatti, a worker who nevertheless has social status and wants more of it, has sympathies for both the upper and lower classes. That’s why his role is hardest to play. Until the end, he genuinely likes both the upper-crust Prince and the peasant-class Eisenheim, and doesn’t want to choose between the two. He ultimately doesn’t, and hence we see the emerging middle class.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I watched The Illusionist, because Giamatti’s fine performance (and, despite the movie’s title, he’s truly the protagonist here) shows us the class war he’s waging within himself. His allegiances change, sharpen, and grow deeper as we watch, and the performance is all the more extraordinary because Uhl himself spends most of the movie watching, and not acting. (There are only two acts of violence in the movie, and neither are done by the man—the policeman—who has the right to bear arms.) Giamatti is a marvel.
Then again, other actors show their inner struggles. As Sophie, Biel convinces us that she’s willing to cast these issues aside. As an actor, Biel projects the glow that Burger’s light and camera also radiates. She’s no innocent, but she’s also no cynic. Despite her high rank, she’s the character willing to cross social borders (by leaving the Prince for Eisenheim), and so stands outside the social theory that absorbs and nearly destroys the men. She’s an unattainable ideal for Eisenheim, but also lives by ideals that consciously dismiss the all-consuming ideas of status. For this, she pays a heavy price, but Biel’s steady gaze and poised delivery lets us know that the character knows exactly what’s at risk.
Eisenheim becomes a superstar, then a people’s folk hero, and then a martyr-of-sorts, and then a wily escape artist, all in the span of 90 minutes. Norton makes it all convincing, all part of a fiery piece. He’s an enigma throughout the movie—the movie posits, via well-paced flashbacks, several possibilities as to how he became a master magician, but leaves the viewer to settle the decision for herself. Norton’s performance turns out to a performance within a performance; the role has depths we can’t fathom until the end. Then again, all legends are shrouded in myth, and The Illusionist’s patina is of the fable. After all, it’s a story told by Uhl, who, even in retrospect, isn’t completely sure how all the parts fit together. And what kind of a fable about a magician, pray tell, would we have without smoke and mirrors?