A good storyteller, like a good magician, knows that the audience wants to be fooled, at least while the show is in progress. In the end, we may or may not want to know the truth—for the truth, once revealed, may come either as a revelation or an anticlimax. But while the performance unfolds, we want the illusion, want to be taken out of the real world. Once we see through the story or the trick, the spell is broken, and we're back in the real world.
A moody, atmospheric fairy tale, The Illusionist is the story of one illusionist—Eisenheim, a fictional turn-of-the-last-century magician—being told by another, writer-director Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin). By the film's end, the viewer knows the truth about some of Eisenheim's illusions, and some of Burger's as well. Some viewers may see through the plot's central illusion early on; others may be as fooled as most of the characters. On a fundamental level, though, The Illusionist succeeds: While the storytellers are at work, the spell holds.
Based on the Steven Millhauser short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," Burger's film tells the story of an unflappable, charismatic magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) in pre-WWI Vienna. Like a method actor who stays in character off the set, Eisenheim maintains a quiet, commanding presence on or off the stage, an inscrutable sense of knowing more than he lets on, as he plays a dangerous game of wits with the heir to the AustriaHungary monarchy, the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and with Leopold's favorite among the police, chief inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).
The sparks begin to fly when Leopold, attending one of Eisenheim's performances, volunteers his paramour, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), for one of the illusionist's effects. The Duchess takes the stage, and for a moment it seems Eisenheim is the one under a spell. "You're certain we've never met?" he asks rhetorically, for the audience's benefit.
But they have met, a lifetime ago. In those days, Eisenheim was merely Edward, teenaged son of a cabinet-maker and a new student of conjuring tricks, while Sophie was the young daughter of an aristocratic family for whom Edward's father was working. Their puppy-love romance was doomed from the start, of course, though they fantasized about "disappearing" and "running away together."
Hiding in the forest with authorities closing in, young Sophie pleaded with Edward, "Make us disappear." Alas, in those days Edward was not yet a powerful enough magician for such an illusion. Humiliated and abandoned, Edward vanished and began a long journey in which he would completely reinvent himself.
Looking back on this journey, Eisenheim later tells Sophie, "I kept thinking I'd find it just around the next corner … a real mystery. The only mystery I ever found was why my heart wouldn't let go of you."
The star-crossed lovers face an even greater obstacle now in the figure of Leopold, whose planned marriage to the Duchess is an important part of his political ambitions. But Eisenheim is no longer the hapless teenager who was once sent packing in the woods. His calm dignity is like a cloak pulled tightly around him; never again will he be humiliated, though under the right circumstances he is willing to humiliate others, even Leopold himself.