Edward Norton in The Illusionist

Reviewed By Daniel Garrett

The Illusionist
Directed by Neil Burger
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti
Yari Film Group, 2006

Neil Burger’s film The Illusionist, based on a story by Steven Millhauser, and starring Edward Norton, is about perception and reality, about illusions—and about childhood friendship, adult love, and social expectations; about courage and cowardice; about power and rebellion; and life and death. It is a vivid story with ideas we can identify if we choose: it is focused on a boy who does magic tricks, one who is befriended by an aristocratic girl whose people keep her away from him because of the differences in their social status. (One wonders what the girl whose desires are ignored is likely to think about how much she herself is known and valued.) The boy leaves to find his fortune and grows up to become Edward Norton’s Eisenheim. Edward Norton can look like anyone on the street or in an office, or very distinguished, and here he is distinguished—well-groomed, with good clothing, and careful posture. Edward Norton, as a man who presents illusions, a magician, projects mastery and mystery. (“Eisenheim is Edward Norton, who continues to amaze,” commented Stanley Kauffmann in the September 11, 2006 New Republic.) However, there were times when I wondered whose talent I was seeing when he was onstage—Norton’s or his character Eisenheim, not an uncommon query when a performer is playing a performer. Upon Eisenheim’s appearance in Vienna, he finds that the girl he knew, Sophie, now embodied by Jessica Biel, is to marry the crown prince, an ambitious and cruel man, Leopold, played by Rufus Sewell. Biel’s look and restrained manner are appropriate to the role, and she manages to be feminine and expressive in ways that fill the character without giving her away. Rufus Sewell—controlling and roguish—as an adversary, turns out to have part of his motivation be different, a little more benevolent, than he seems (he is bad for a good reason, or so he thinks). The scene in which the prince encourages his fiancée to participate in a magic trick, thus reintroducing Eisenheim and Sophie, shows Sophie appearing on stage before a mirror that seems to reveal her other selves. The prince at a subsequent entertainment loses control briefly of his own sword (the sword could be read as a symbol of various kinds of power)—which, thanks to Eisenheim, seems stuck to the stage, immobile. How are these feats achieved?

The police inspector that the crown prince asks to investigate Eisenheim is eager both to monitor the illusionist and to find out how he achieves his demonstrations. The police inspector, who is almost completely in the pocket of the crown prince, is named Uhl, and he is played by Paul Giamatti; and the character, of mixed motives, emerges slowly as someone who does have integrity and intelligence that, together, give courage. “Giamatti’s performance is subtle, expressive, and richly nuanced. He also gives the character a slight Viennese accent, as Norton does his,” wrote film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader, August 18, 2006). “Uhl is a man whose wry cynicism touches everything with what we might want to think of as fin-de-siècle Viennese worldliness. (At one point when he and Eisenheim quarrel, the illusionist fumes, ‘Are you completely corrupt?’ Blandly Uhl replies, ‘Not completely.’),” wrote Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic). Eisenheim and Uhl see their relation to power differently—one seduces and subverts power, and one serves it (and that the two men do not treat each other as enemies, and that is viciously, is one of the most intriguing things in the film). Uhl warns Eisenheim that when the rich and powerful play with others below their stations, their playmates are likely to be hurt, not the well-placed themselves; and yet, later, when Uhl locates incriminating evidence, he pursues it to where it leads, even though that may threaten his own ambitions and safety.

The inattention to reason and scientific explanation, and the belief in magic, can make people easier to manipulate. (Reason has its own seductions too.) Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that the film “introduces us to the mysterious young magician, whose tricks are so spectacular we’re unsure whether to see them as supernatural miracles or as simply very good magic tricks” (Chicago Reader, August 18, 2006). That ambiguity—which I think the film addresses in the end—was a problem for some viewers. Film commentator David Walsh, whose work often looks at social issues, found questionable the lack of clarity regarding whether Eisenheim’s feats were magic tricks with mechanical explanations or acts of the supernatural, and Walsh thought that weakened the film. Walsh thinks the indeterminacy even affects how the viewer is likely to see the magician’s relationship with Sophie (I disagree—their childhood acquaintance and his adult willingness to defy the prince are two things that make him attractive to her: and their relationship is, first of all, personal, between the two of them). “Burger indicates a fashionable interest in the blurring of ‘illusion and reality,’ but if Eisenheim’s astounding acts are genuinely other-worldly, then they are not illusory. (If everything in the world is merely an illusion and objective reality impossible to determine, then to speak of a distinction between illusion and reality is clearly meaningless.) In any event, a story about such a figure would have a definite logic of its own,” wrote David Walsh (World Socialist Web Site, September 4, 2006), before elaborating, an elaboration that noted a preference for a mechanical explanation. Walsh concluded, “The more earthly relations are more interesting, particularly those between Uhl and Leopold. The ambitious, cynical policeman is the prince’s tool. The latter holds out before him the possibility of promotion and real political power. But Uhl is also somewhat honest, which may prove his undoing. His trajectory, in fact, resembles more closely that of the artist: an individual driven beyond his own conscious beliefs or aims, who uncovers certain unpleasant truths. In this, and in Giamatti’s performance, the film is convincing.” (Walsh is a writer whose view I value, but I think Walsh’s response to this movie may be typical of a political interpretation that refuses to wastes time with the fanciful.)

“Writer-director Neil Burger doesn’t quite display Eisenheim’s sleight-of-hand; the effects are silly, and the heavy-handed and anachronistic adaptation seems as if it’s brought along the signposts to allegory but then left the point at home,” wrote film reviewer Carina Chocano (the Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2006), and Chocano seemed to find the performances less sincere and less winning than others (hammy, or its variation, was a description Chocano used more than once). I suppose we can file that under ‘everyone is entitled to her own opinion,’ though the vehemence of the mockery is surprising. If nothing else, one can argue that the film, in the prince’s fate, shows how futile it is to try to blatantly control others; and also, in Eisenheim and Sophie’s relationship, that true love endures (if one insists on a point, or a message, those are two).

In the film, when Sophie’s body is found floating in a stream—and suspicions fall on the crown prince as a killer, and he is not arrested, even though there were rumors the prince had injured another woman before, suggesting a pattern, the film becomes a portrait of a society in which certain members are protected from punishment. When ghostly apparitions begin to appear in Eisenheim’s act, the faith in the supernatural of the people watching his act is encouraged; and there is talk that Eisenheim might inspire a kind of spiritual revolution in the nation. A boy without resources has grown into a man with new resources. A man with apparently spiritual powers is set against the materialism and force and prestige of aristocracy—and these new powers give people the courage to begin to voice some of their suspicions of the powerful in public. It is a frightening view though: that not conscious commitment but psychic attraction can get people to seek justice. Part of the film’s appeal to me is that it offers more than one kind of mood, and more than one kind of reading of its story, which encompasses character, love, and power.

Stanley Kauffmann said The Illusionist reminds us “that a good story, without much thematic resonance, can be enough,” and Kauffmann wrote, “Neil Burger’s directing is exceptional even on the periphery—his selection of extras. (We see many in public places, in theater audiences.) Every face we see has some interest, some individuality, and has a verifying effect on the whole. More centrally, Burger’s handling of movement is fluent, original without a trace of the freaky. (He does have a passion for feet; we often see feet in motion—even horses’ hooves.) More subtly, he understood what he needed from his actors to make this story absorbing. This is Burger’s second feature, and he is one more reason not to be depressed about American film” (The New Republic, September 11, 2006). Burger’s first film was Interview with the Assassin, released a few years ago.

I liked The Illusionist, which I saw for two reasons: one, I realized that I had not seen Edward Norton in anything for a while, though he is an actor I admire; and two, someone gave me a pass to a screening. I first saw Edward Norton in Primal Fear in 1996, a film in which he plays an exploited young man who is more complex and dangerous than he at first seems (calculation turns out to be the other face of innocence). The same year, Norton was featured in The People vs. Larry Flynt as Flynt’s smart but challenged attorney, and in Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You, very different kinds of movies. Rounders, in which Norton appeared in 1998 with Matt Damon and Gretchen Mol, was one of my favorite movies for a while: its characters and situations, involving young gamblers, were unusual. Norton’s performance in American History X as a hateful young man, a part for which he transformed his body into threatening muscle, is legendary. Fight Club, The Score, Frida, 25th Hour, and Down in the Valley followed. Norton, who was drawn to the theater as a boy and who was reported to have studied history at Yale, has a reputation as a man and an actor of intellect and significant values: and what that means in practice is that he is not always featured in films that get a lot of publicity, and one can forget to search out his work. (Edward Norton has sometimes received more attention for his personal association with Courtney Love and Salma Hayek than for some of his films.) Norton is respected also as someone who can contribute to a script’s development and as a humanitarian for his work with foundations. In The Illusionist he has a glamour I do not recall him having before, and he seems supported in the film The Illusionist in novel ways (that may be because of the kind of initiative and independence his character has, and that most of the other characters are compelled to respond to him). Edward Norton does not present the same personality from film to film; he is an actor who creates characters and yet he has become a leading man—and, in The Illusionist, he manages something that seems a little bit subversive.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett’s film commentary has appeared in The African, Black Film Review, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, 24FramesPerSecond.com, and on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader.