The Illusionist

Eisenheim's chair sits empty, facing the audience, in the fire-lit theatre as the curtains open.

Eisenheim the Illusionist’s angular Jugendstil chair sitting on a bare stage is emblematic of this film’s style and is a potent set piece in establishing Eisenheim’s own approach on illusion.

Alisa and I had been looking forward to seeing The Illusionist for some time, so we made our way downtown to check it out yesterday afternoon. It’s a great rainy-day movie, as it’s based loosely on a short story (Steven Millhauser’s ’Eisenheim the Illusionist’) which contributes to its focused and well-crafted telling. And, like most short stories I read and enjoy, it trims off the fat by creating clear characters and strong tensions to set up the delivery of the closing impact. Unfortunately, I found the closing impact to be lacking in the face of such a well-delivered and intriguing setup (about 98% of the film).


The Illusionist reminded me a great deal of M. Night Shyamalan’s storytelling style. And while the film is certainly not in the same league with the colossal set-up-let-downs that Shyamalan is intent on making recently, it shares many of their attributes. The storytelling is solid, the pacing is right-on, the visuals are excellent, and a willing audience is worked expertly. Plus, without giving anything away, the ending is also pretty foreseeable and wilts immediately. (To clarify my opinions of Shyamalan: he’s far more skilled at what he does well and far worse at what he does poorly.)

Eisenheim stands on an empty stage in front of a backdrop with fat pillars painted on it in forced perspective.

Eisenheim stands with his arm stretched out behind a small tree growing out of a pot on a table.

Edward Norton, as Eisenheim, delivers a brief monologue about the nature of time, warming up the audience for his orange tree illusion. The design of the entire movie was expertly executed, balancing the period styles and atmospheric requirements.

That setup and delivery structure are why I love a great short story and films that structure themselves similarly, but also why they are so hard to find. The Usual Suspects is an example, in my opinion, of a film that pulls this kind of thing off perfectly, though it feels less like a short story, because of its subject matter and narrative framing style. The Sixth Sense is an apt example of this style, and one that was successful on every count. A good short story should tell you where it’s going right out of the gate, and either surprise the hell out of you by making you realize that you completely misunderstood its meaning or surprise and thrill you in spite of the fact that it went exactly where you thought it would because of its skill at putting you right where it wants you.

The Crown Prince in his hunting garb by the woods.

Rufus Sewell delivered the character of the film’s antagonist, Crown Prince Leopold, perfectly. His icy hardness, his intellectual insecurity and desire to dominate barely required the deliver of lines to be readily apparent.

The Chief Inspector, looking stern, walks down a hall festooned with antlers and sparingly lit.

Paul Giamatti was an excellent fit for Chief Inspector Uhl, who acts as a more nebulous agent, stuck somewhere between Eisenheim and the Crown Prince. Here we see him walking down the hall of the Prince’s country home, in one of the more striking sets. Giamatti isn’t deviating from his typical character too much here, but, as always, he does a solid job.

Sophie is hooded in a red cloak on stage, looking away from the audience.

Jessica Biel’s take on the spirited but caged Sophie was just the right fit for the story. Her character was always wavering near the line between strength and capitulation, which gave her a degree of unpredicatbility. Here, she participates in a mirror illusion.

For me, watching and reading tales delivered in this manner has always evoked the image of a figure walking down a dark hall towards the closed door of lit room, while dragging a knife along a metal railing, creating that long scraping sound of metal on metal. You know that the figure has a knife, and that they want you to know it too. You also know that they’ll get to the end of the hallway no matter what. But the most important part of this entire notional film is what the character does when they reach the door. The door not only shows the final destination, but also obscures its contents. The delicious part about these tales is the mystery of what is beyond that final step. It could be a victim in a shower, a turkey in a kitchen, or a sheer drop three stories down. If you’re going to tell this kind of story, you have to know that and use it. The film could be 60 seconds long, and a skillful teller of these kinds of tales would spend 55 of them showing you the hall, the door, the knife, and the sound. Everything they need to create suspense, tension, and atmosphere is practically handed to them, and they can luxuriate in the details and the setup, drawing the tension ever tighter. But this is what makes these kinds of tales attractive to so many and successful for so few. Those 55 seconds are far easier than those last five brief seconds. Because if the last five seconds don’t push the audience into a place they never saw coming in a way that blasts them past the emotions of preceding 55, then nothing will save the story. Not many tale-tellers can make you feel the full range of emotions required to hold your interest while still holding something back the entire time.

With his sleeves rolled up, Eisenheim concentrates with a furrowed brow and outstretched hand.

As the film progresses, Eisenheim’s acts become spare and virtually silent, but far more potent.

And this, ultimately, is why I left The Illusionist feeling let down. If you eat your way through an expertly prepared steak only to find frozen meat at the center, the entire meal is damaged. You can tell people about the marinade, the texture, and the side dishes, but you’ll always end with “And it was all ruined because the center was a mouthful of ice.” The telling had me completely enthralled, but the story’s climax held less emotional force for me than the buildup to it. The entire movie pushes you in one direction, and gives you such wonders to behold, such bare emotional intensity, then quickly sucks the wonder out of the room without the requisite payoff. If the audience does your work for you for about an hour and 45 minutes, you are obliged to take on the load for the remaining five. In other words, if Moses is going to lead you around the desert for 40 years, he better be able to deliver Canaan at the end.

That being said, The Illusionist is a well made, well directed, and well acted film. It certainly has its own appeal and reward if you don’t expect the world of it (as I did by the end). It can suck you in and keep you wondering in the world of turn-of-the-century Prussia, marveling at a lean tale told well. Next time you’ve got a rainy day with nothing to do, rent this DVD, curl up in front of the TV and find out if this film’s tricks will impress you.

Eisenheim sitting on an older stage, as seen from above, with his sleeves up and his hands on his knees in front of gas footlights.

MPAA Review: Some sexuality and violence.
Ad Exec Reviews: “Nothing is what it seems.”