“The Illusionist” is an immaculately executed period thriller. What it lacks for in originality and plotting, it more than compensates with rich detail and deft storytelling. “The Illusionist” tells the story of Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton), a magician in the early 20th century Vienna. As a young boy, growing up as a cabinet-maker’s son who is smitten by magic, Eisenheim falls for and has a short, passionate and ill-fated relationship with the young duchess Sophie. When their ill-botched plans to elope are terminated by the powers that be, Eisenheim disappears into the wilderness, only to reappear years later as a supremely talented illusionist. As mandated by the law of romantic storytelling, their paths cross again, and in no time Eisenheim and Sophie are passionately in love again (the adult version this time).
Where is the fun in the world if everyone gets what they want, so the plot thickens with the appearance of vested interests, villains, and almost-villains-whose-conscience-is-awaken-at-the-right-moment. The crown prince of Vienna, Leopold, has plans of his own to get engaged to Princess Sophie, and other plans of larger reach such as reorganizing the power structure of the royal house of Vienna. Leopold is aided in this scheming by his executive-lynchpin Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). “The Illusionist” waves this yarn of political intrigue, bureaucratic dogma and dilemma and period drama around the romantic thread.
The way Eisenheim’s shows are staged (or filmed rather) needs special mention. The introductions by his manager have the right dosage of awe-inducing hyperbole. And then Eisenheim walks on to an empty stage. There are no distractions on the stage- no gadgetry or gimmicks, or flashy clothing. The lean Eisenheim fills the stage with just his persona and presence. Edward Norton was born to play this role. He slowly tilts his head and starts speaking, and his words arrive with a sense of finality to them. It’s like his actions and words have been long set in motion, and they are just filling their logical positions like a domino set in motion. Paul Giamatti, Hollywood’s penance for the likes of Steven Segal, enriches the role of the inspector with his full-throttled approach. All this works because of the perfect setting of tone and atmosphere executed with ample help from the composer Philip Glass, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and cinematographer Dick Pope.
A word about the moustaches in the film- they appear in all shapes, sizes and vigor. Apparently, in this movie, the more powerful you are, odder-looking and vigorous your mustache will be. The actors should have demanded for a mustache-allowance for sporting these specious looking beings.
The movie has you in a spell during its entire duration, which you willingly surrender to. When you walk out of the theater, the spell vanishes, but, what fun while it lasts!