All these new movies about magicians—The Illusionist, The Prestige, Magicians—meant for release at roughly the same time: It must mean something for the culture as a whole, right? Yes, probably that our very belief in magic, at least where movies are concerned, is feeling threatened. We’ve entered the age of reasoning that most of what we see onscreen is computer-conjured and inherently bogus anyway. We’ve witnessed the shrugging, increasingly standard procedure by which filmmakers render every story as one big gaping plot hole tailored for filling in with special effects. Of course we’ve felt the attrition of enchantment.
Maybe a nice period piece would help? Writer-director Neil Burger thinks so, and he makes his case in The Illusionist with the confidence of a magician who won’t retire the old routines everyone’s already figured out because, well, a good trick is still a good trick — and a good presentation makes all the difference. Adapting a short story by the nimble fabulist Steven Millhauser, Burger has wrought a proudly self-conscious entertainment. It is also, however, a discriminating movie whose thematic concerns include the distinction between one social class and the next and between showmanship and wizardry. If not an entirely wizardly affair, it is certainly a classy one.
The setting is Vienna around 1900. The illusionist is a man called Eisenheim, played with paradoxically inviting remoteness by Edward Norton. According to the local lore, Eisenheim comes from very humble beginnings, but ultimately his act affords him enough social capital to threaten the stability of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Whether from rapport with the supernatural or from smoke and mirrors, he has some serious skills. And so he works his way up from back-alley card tricks to a spectacular concert-hall séance number — a sort of turn-of-the-century Crossing Over with John Edward but with better production values. Eisenheim eventually runs afoul of the vainglorious Crown Prince Leopold (courtesy of Rufus Sewell as a vividly fictionalized Prince Rudolph, the real son of Emperor Franz Josef), who appoints an opportunistic, inquisitive police inspector to debunk and shut the magician down. To make matters more mesmerizing, the cop is played by Paul Giamatti.
Which is to say that Burger has assembled an elite group of singular, precise performers whose efforts synthesize into a trove of highly glamorous delights. Together they defeat the filmmaker’s overall solemnity and occasional schmaltz with palpable enjoyment and creative facial hair. Graciously, too, each actor sets a fine example of how not to condescend to Jessica Biel, whom the movie posits, with disarming success, as a siren duchess. And in that capacity, she is also a plot point: the love of Eisenheim’s life but also Leopold’s future wife.
An upbeat ending will require some trickery, of course, but all parties seem game. And well they should, as trickery is the very fabric of their tale. Beyond his shrewd or lucky casting, Burger has a knack for depicting the electric hush of a theater in which magic — or possibly a spectacular fraud — is afoot. He has the audacity to perform his own sleight of hand in shooting this Vienna-set story entirely in Prague, and he has the luxuriating taste to fill the picture up with magnificently sensual textures: the sooty tools in Eisenheim’s workshop, the leafy forests or stony city buildings, the costumes, and the careworn faces in painterly close-ups.
Credit for these elemental accents belongs as much to the director as to production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and especially cinematographer Dick Pope, whose gift for rich simplicity has regularly been a boon to the films of Mike Leigh. Where Leigh works hard for naturalism, though, Burger obviously aspires to be a great stylist. He’s getting there; the final deft touch in his workup of The Illusionist is its undulating score by Philip Glass. Who better for a film awash in otherworldly mystery and romance than the composer best known for pulling grandeur from the hat of minimalism? Glass, like the actors in Burger’s central trio, is at his best when he’s at his headiest, and, as with them, it’s a wonder to imagine the movie working without him.
Wonder, of course, is what we should expect from a movie like Burger’s. For the proper sorcerer, willing suspension of disbelief still seems like a fair price to pay.