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Tricky Illusionist Plays With Our Expectations

  • 2006 8 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Tricky <i>Illusionist</i> Plays With Our Expectations

Release Date:  August 18, 2006 (select cities)
Rating:  PG-13 (for some sexuality and violence)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  110 min.
Director:  Neil Burger
Actors:  Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell

The Illusionist tells the story of a man who appears to make trees grow and blossom, raise the spirits of the dead, and control inanimate objects. His followers grow in number and in devotion, placing their hope in his miraculous abilities.

Jesus Christ demonstrated his power over nature (calming the waves, making the fig tree wither) and power to raise the dead. He defied the laws of physics by appearing, suddenly, in a locked room, where he challenged people to touch him and believe in him.

The Illusionist makes no claim to be a Christian allegory, but Christian viewers will be hard pressed not to pick up on the similarities between certain elements in the life of Christ and the story of Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a stage magician. Those similarities, however, are echoes, not strict parallels, and The Illusionist is, in the end, a very well acted telling of a familiar story: a contest between a lovelorn protagonist and a reprehensible villain for the hand of a beautiful maiden.

The tricks are all in the telling. In the case of "The Illusionist," the audience’s willingness to care about the film’s main romance will make or break the viewing experience.

When the illusionist Eisenheim comes to Vienna, he quickly makes a name for himself with performances that amaze and delight ticket-buyers, including Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) – fiancée of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Sophie, offered as a volunteer for Eisenheim’s stage show, turns out to be a childhood friend of Eisenheim’s, and their immediate reconnection quickly develops into a full-blown romance.

The prince, informed of their relationship by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), sets out to learn the illusionist’s tricks and expose him as a fraud. But when Sophie refuses to comply with the prince’s plans, the story takes a dark turn. As Eisenheim copes with a sudden tragedy, the chief inspector is forced to choose between doing the bidding of the crown prince, or finding the truth and risking his livelihood.

The unpacking of that story is clever – a puzzle that becomes clear only after the final piece is placed. That will be enough to keep some people talking about "The Illusionist" long after it’s over.

Pity, though, that the film raises so many philosophically rich ideas about faith versus sight and the mind’s ability to see what it wants to see, only to use those elements in the service of a tepid love story. "The Illusionist" never explains how Eisenheim carries out his most impressive illusions, nor is it much interested in the “false hope” Eisenheim acknowledges stoking within his most ardent admirers.

Rather than contemplate deeper issues, the story elects to focus on a villainous cretin and his quest to control another person. We’ve seen this before, and despite the nice performances, the period setting and mind-bending stage tricks, a warmed-over feeling about the plot persists.

But then, a twist – and with that, a reassessment of all that’s come before. Have we been fooled? Yes. Are we complicit in this con? Probably. Does it make us forget about the other concerns with "The Illusionist"?

The answer to that final question will determine whether or not "The Illusionist" is, or is not, a rewarding experience for each viewer. The movie is not all it could be, but it has one big trick up its sleeve – and it’s a doozy. Is it magic, manipulation, or a little of both? If it’s judged to be the former, the film will prove rewarding; if the latter, the film will feel like a cheat.

It’s a magic show that might break down under scrutiny, but which holds you in its spell for a time.

AUDIENCE: Older teens and up

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Pipe smoking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Two people undress each other and have sex, while the camera shows only the curve of their bodies; some kissing.
  • Violence:  Gunfire; a man strikes a woman on the face; a loaded gun is pointed at another person; suicide; a corpse is displayed.
  • Religion:  Eisenheim discusses the possibility of a spiritual life and realm beyond our earthly lives.