There comes a point in The Illusionist when you can easily guess (if you’ve seen enough movies) that from that point onward, nothing will truly be as it is presented — until, of course, the climax, when the movie helpfully reminds you of the turning point and pulls back the curtain to show you what was really happened.
Despite the utter predictability of the “surprise” ending, however, The Illusionist still manages to entertain. Sepia-toned and gently paced, the movie has a charming, fairy tale quality about it. Tales of young star-crossed lovers often do.
In this case, the lovers are Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a gifted magician, and Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), an aristocrat all but betrothed to the ambitious, hot-tempered Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As children, Eisenheim and Sophie were torn apart due to the inevitable chasm between the son of a humble carpenter and the daughter of an exalted duke. When they meet again fifteen years later, they fall in love anew, to the consternation of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the police officer tasked with shadowing the prince’s wayward intended.
Norton carries the movie with his opaque yet active, intelligent gaze, the very picture of still waters running deep, hinting at but never truly revealing the anger and cunning and passion beneath the detached persona Eisenheim has adopted. The always reliable Giamatti proves a worthy foil. The growling, accented baritone he has acquired for the role is disconcerting at first, but it soon wraps itself into the convincing, conflicted character Giamatti creates. When Eisenheim indignantly asks Uhl whether he is “entirely corrupt,” Uhl spits back, “No, not entirely,” and Giamatti’s sarcasm mingled with a trace of self-loathing makes the line reading crackle.
The Illusionist skirts around broader themes — class conflict and political upheaval and, after Eisenheim starts summoning specters of the dead, religion and spirituality — but the references are only light and glancing, never distracting from the love story and the mouse trap at its center. (That said, at one point Leopold insists that he only wants to overthrow his father, the emperor, so that he can bring democracy to the empire, and the volatile mix of self-righteousness and self-deception that Sewell gives his loathsome character makes the sentiment darkly fun — and a bit too relevant.)
The traces of larger issues add not substance but atmosphere, contributing to the mystery and intrigue of the tale. Eisenheim’s performances are particularly captivating, especially as the question of whether he truly has supernatural abilities remains unanswered for most (if not all) of the film. In one of the first illusions we see, he plants an orange seed and then bids it to grow into a small, fruitful tree before the audience’s astonished eyes. It doesn’t matter how the feat is accomplished: In that breathtakingly beautiful moment, The Illusionist truly is magical.