A SLEIGHT CASE OF MURDER : Neil Burger’s ‘The Illusionist’ [6/10]

In the run-up to the UK's 1997 general election, TV magician Paul Daniels – a prominent and vocal supporter of the incumbent Conservative Party -  announced that he would emigrate to Barbados if Labour came to power. It hasn't been calculated how many votes this (never-kept) promise earned Tony Blair and company – similar offhand (and sadly-unfulfilled) "pledges" were made by, among others, Phil Collins, Frank Bruno and Andrew Lloyd-Webber – but it was remarked upon at the time that, if Daniels hated Labour so very much, why didn't he just make them vanish?
A decade later The Illusionist shows one way in which an especially-skilled conjuror might have been able to change the course of history. As Variety's Todd McCarthy irresistibly summed it up: "the yarn centers on a stage magician whose powers are so extraordinary they eventually threaten to subvert the power-structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." The magician in question is Eisenheim (Edward Norton), originally named Abramowitz and from humble rural stock. As a child, Abramowitz/Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) had a forbidden 'sweetheart': Sophie (Eleanor Tomlinson), daughter of the local gentry (she's a duchess… how?). Their radically different social circumstances eventually forced the end of their friendship, and Abramowitz left home with the intention of perfecting his magic tricks.
Years later, Eisenheim returns to his native land and quickly becomes a sensation in Vienna with his mesmerism/prestidigitation act ("Please gaze directly into my eyes. Look nowhere else," he intones at one point, sounding uncomfortably like a forerunner of Little Britain's dodgy hypnotist Kenny Craig.) His success brings him to the attention of the empire's heir-apparent Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), about to marry none other than (the now very much grown-up) Sophie (Jessica Biel). Her family ties make her a crucial element in his devious stratagem to usurp his aged father, the Emperor. Eisenheim and Sophie soon make contact, and find that their childhood affection has been replaced by something more passionate. Leopold learns of his betrothed's indiscretion via ambitious policeman Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), and is – perhaps homicidally – determined that his marriage plans won't be scuppered by some low-born 'conjuror'… 
Not that there's very much of this in Steven Millhauser's short story Eisenheim the Illusionist – originally published in his 1997 collection The Barnum Museum. According to reviewer Staci Wilson, who's read the story and seen the movie, writer-director Neil Burger took considerable liberties adapting Millhauser's work for the screen:
           I have to wonder why … Burger, would even bother to option the text. His movie only touches on the most basic [tenets] of the short tale — and those elements he did use are based on historical fact, anyway (i.e., the tricks and illusions practiced back in the day, how spiritualists did their conjuring). Burger also uses the same names for the characters, but that is it. Eisenheim The Illusionist is a beautifully written story and paints an intriguing portrait of an enigmatic, driven and secretive conjurer, but the movie adds depth and layers with a strong romance, political overtones, and a murder mystery. The written story is basically a character study, with only a hazy plot structure. There is a kernel in Millhauser's story about Eisenheim's rivalry with another stage magician that would have made a good movie with an excellent twist, but Burger didn't use this at all. It's baffling why the movie is so different from its source material…
There's a relatively simple solution to this "baffling" mystery: The Illusionist went into production around the same time as another tale of magic and intrigue, based on a literary source, set on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries – Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, an adaptation of Christopher Priest's 1996 novel. (Nolan's movie is, of course, all about doubles – dead-ringers and exact 'copies' – and it's almost too coincidental that it should now have this cinematic 'double' of its own.) As The Prestige (which reportedly cost well over double The Illusionist's $16m budget) deals with a pair of feuding magicians, it's no surprise that the rivalry-theme 'kernel' mentioned by Wilson should have been totally excised – Burger instead embellishing Millhauser's "hazily-plotted character study" with the romantic and political plots which dominate the screenplay.
While Eisenheim is a fictional creation, there is some grain (kernel?) of truth in Burger's flight of fancy: scholars of Hapsburg history will recognise that his plot is effectively a fantastical re-imagining of the notorious 'Mayerling' incident of 1889, in which the Crown Prince (Rudolf, not Leopold) and his mistress were found dead under exceedingly suspicious circumstances (Burger tips us the wink by including a throwaway dialogue reference to the "imperial hunting lodge.") While the affair had enormously serious consequences, The Illusionist – while thankfully not quite any sort of Carry On Mayerling – uses it mainly as a starting-point for an old-fashioned romantic fantasy focussing on Eisenheim and Sophie. It's yet another example of the 'childhood-sweetheart' fallacy, whereby any pair of youngsters in a Hollywood movie who show any kind of romantic attachment to each other in their youth will almost certainly end up together (after all manner of tribulation) as adults.
And whereas The Prestige got itself tangled in all manner of twists and knots, The Illusionist – while not exactly a model of storytelling clarity at a couple of junctures – hinges on one, not especially surprising twist. This represents such a basic example of scriptwriting sleight-of-hand that it's surprising how long it takes for Uhl to work it all out – which he eventually manages (while smiling and laughing at his own cleverness in rather excessively theatrical fashion) during a final-reel montage. Then again, the nuts and bolts of Eisenheim's grandly elaborate scheme aren't really the point here: the essence of the picture isn't really the magic, but the romance which motivates it. Crucially, Norton and Biel make for a plausible pairing which is very easy to 'root for,' especially with Sewell's Leopold quickly developing into little more than a moustache-twirling villain.
Early on, however, there are signs that the characterisation of Leopold might perhaps have been developed in more stimulating ways: his impatience with Eisenheim (most entertainingly displayed during a particularly neat 'Excalibur' trick at the royal palace) is, at first, motivated at least in part by a noble Prince Albert-ish desire to embrace modernity and cast off the trappings of pre-enlightenment superstition. As it is, The Illusionist merely juggles various serious concepts and dualisms (rationalism/spiritualism, democracy/aristocracy) rather than integrate them the narrative. There's clearly a class-conflict element to Eisenheim's plotting – and it's obviously no accident that we should be informed about his Jewish ancestry – but in the end he's less concerned with 'subverting the power-structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire' than escaping into the sunset with his lady-love.
But while The Illusionist doesn't hold much water on close inspection, the 'smoke and mirrors' deployed to distract us from the picture's flaws pretty much fulfil their task. This is such a classy enterprise that the actor who's credited as 'Eddie Marsan' in the opening titles is elevated into 'Edward Marsan' (if you please) by the time the end credits unroll. Shot in various central-European locations (including Hostel's Cesky Krumlov!), the film is handsomely-mounted and looks consistently striking via Dick Pope's cinematography. Pope (Mike Leigh's DP of choice) employs various "tricks" of his own to give the limpid images a decidedly 'old-school' look, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for his pains (among his rivals: The Prestige's Wally Pfister).
Credit also to Philip Glass for a score that's busy without ever feeling intrusive. Sadly, not all elements of the film's soundtrack work quite so well: for some mysterious reason the performers speak their lines with a slight but distinct 'mittel European' accent which makes much of the dialogue sound off-puttingly stilted, saps some of the charm from Norton and Biel's lovey-dovey exchanges, and generally prevents the viewer from fully suspending disbelief and succumbing fully to the picture's delicate spell.

Neil Young
2nd March, 2007

THE ILLUSIONIST : [6/10] : USA (US-Cz) 2006 (copyright-dated 2005) : Neil BURGER : 109 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 22nd February 2007 – press show