Paul Giamatti portrays Chief Inspector Uhl in Yari Film Group’s “The Illusionist.”
From the opening scene in a dimly lit Viennese theater around the dawn of the 20th century, “The Illusionist” entrances audiences with a well-crafted tale set against the richly detailed backdrop of Austria in the waning years of the Hapsburg Dynasty.
Most surprising, perhaps, is that a film highlighting the dreamlike realm of magicians achieves success not based on the complexities of computer-generated special effects but on the strong performances of its cast and on the merits of the screenplay.
Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a gifted magician who becomes entangled in a battle for the love of a noblewoman. Chief Inspector Uhl, skillfully played by Paul Giamatti, acts as mediator between commoner and patrician, popular spiritualism and inflexible reason, and, ultimately, good and evil.
Told mainly from the chief inspector’s point of view, much of the film is a flashback intermittently narrated by Uhl. From his perspective, the audience learns about a young peasant boy’s fortuitous encounter with a traveling magician as well as his inopportune adolescent relationship with the Duchess Sophie von Teschen. Being from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the budding romance is promptly repressed by the girl’s family.
Following the forced separation, Norton’s character is reported to have traveled the world cultivating his proclivity for wizardry. When he finally appears in Vienna, years later, his mystical stage performances immediately captivate audiences. A call for volunteers one particular evening results in an auspicious reunion with the duchess, played by Jessica Biel. On the brink of agreeing to a politically advantageous union with the ruthless Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Sophie finds the temptation to resume the lost love affair with Eisenheim impossible to resist.
Leopold’s reaction to Sophie’s betrayal is swift and predictably brutal.
As the storyline advances, there are hints that the smoke and mirrors employed by Eisenheim may not be restricted to the stage. Without being too obvious, clues are conveyed to the audience through cinematic sleight of hand that allows viewers to gradually piece together the puzzle without sacrificing the sense of suspense.
Norton’s portrayal of Eisenheim is accurately understated, rendering the character as enigmatic and ambiguous. While unreservedly confessing to trickery, his Mephistophelean appearance and impenetrable demeanor suggest his powers may well be legitimate.
While Norton’s acting is exemplary, Giamatti’s performance is transcendent. An Oscar-worthy effort, his representation of a hapless character caught between two opposing and equally stubborn personalities anchors the rest of the cast and acts as the heart of narrative. In bringing the threads of the story together in the closing sequence, Giamatti evokes a sense of ecstatic epiphany without uttering a word.
The movie’s best trick is that it is drawing modest crowds even though it lacked adequate prerelease promotion and has received little mainstream media attention.
Hardly standard Hollywood fare, moviegoers should rejoice at “The Illusionist,” a breath of fresh air after a sickeningly stuffy summer. These days, it’s hard to find a film that does not underestimate the collective intelligence and attentiveness of the viewing public. While mechanical blockbusters with recycled plots and implausible premises have their place, it’s refreshing to know that there are still moviemakers willing to serve up something other than mindless fluff.