"The Illusionist" represents a troubling genre for film reviewers like myself. No real, probing discussion of a movie can ever be complete without involving the ending, but this movie is a prime example of the plot-twist picture, and everyone knows how much audiences do not like those moments spoiled. One shouldn't be surprised, perhaps, that things aren't what they seem; the title is explicitly about illusion, after all. But to divulge what happens then is clearly out of the question, and even remark that there is a plot twist will likely send some of you lovely readers into moans of "Oh, he spoiled the movie for me!"
I do apologize for that. I think the filmmaker, however, should apologize more, for giving the movie a plot twist and saving up all the juicy content right for the end, rather than spreading it out for greater overall enjoyment. It would certainly make my job easier too. Then I could focus less on the plot and more on the motives of the characters, less on tiptoeing and more on candid analysis.
Since there's nothing I can do about that, I will instead turn to the basic premise. It's the late 1800s in Vienna, and Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a famed magician stirring up trouble against the autocratic prince. Little does Eisenheim know, but his childhood love, Sophie, will soon re-emerge, about to be engaged to the tyrant. Paul Giamatti plays Chief Inspector Uhl, a policeman investigating Eisenheim's activities.
Part of what makes Eisenheim so dangerous to the prince is how he captures the restless angst of the working classes. People flock to his shows and genuinely believe what he is showing them is real; this occurs much to Uhl's chagrin. Throughout the film, he is constantly questioning Eisenheim's magic abilities, wanting to know how he did it and trying to crack Eisenheim's impenetrable façade of calm and bring him down to earth.
Eisenheim's ability to unite the people becomes substantially more important midway through the picture when Sophie, after a fight with the prince, turns up drowned in a river. He is convinced that the prince was to blame, and begins to subtly turn the masses against their leader. Uhl further investigates him, but is caught between the reverence of the lower class and the contempt of his royal boss, mirroring his status as a social climber.
The film has the annoying habit of signaling time and place by giving its characters stilted dialogue spoken in formal English, as if that captures the daily life of German-speaking Austrians of the time.
Something of an art house blockbuster, with big names Giamatti and Norton headlining, the film doesn't taken any great risks with characterizations. Giamatti's great ambidexterity on screen is evident in small doses, but he is playing a really straightforward role. Norton, capable of captivating soliloquies like the one he performs in "25th Hour," is mostly a closed book, showing scant emotion and thus taking scant acting risks.
Much of the overall emotional flatness is caused by the film's structure; whether or not this is an effective trade-off is mostly up to personal opinion. There can be no doubt what side viewers take in the love triangle, so little excitement can be gained there, either.
What isn't up for debate is the quality of that final punch. And that's what those twists are meant to do: cause us to reconsider our previous conceptions of what occurred in a flash of realization. It can't save a movie, but it can make up for a lot of small gaffes throughout.
So I got a bit of character analysis in there. Maybe these plot-twist pictures aren't that difficult to write about after all.
"The Illusionist" is currently playing at Eveningstar Cinema in the Tontine Mall in Brunswick at 1:30, 4:00, 6:30 and 8:45 p.m.