"And that distill'd by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion . . . ." Hecate in Macbeth
Romantic Vienna circa 1900, Crown Prince Leopold is too smart his lover says and Eisenheim the Illusionist may be even smarter. Director Neil Burger creates an entertaining and rich tapestry of sets and costumes to enhance the heavily woven plot that pits star-crossed lovers from different classes and thrusts the chief of police squarely between the crown and the magic. Phillip Glass's minimalist music is an effective counterpoint to the intricate d?cor.
When Eisenheim (Edward Norton) entertains the prince (Rufus Sewall), not only is the first half of the film mesmerizing (literally and figuratively), but it is also charged with challenges as the prince wants to know Eisenheim's secrets, the biggest of all being Eisenheim's childhood friendship with Sophie (Jessica Biel), a renewed relationship with potential for much more.
Once the film establishes the combatants, the chief (Paul Giamatti) is a referee with a growing conscience. Giamatti once again inhabits a role with bulging, darting eyes that say much more than dialogue ever could. At any rate, the last half of the film devolves into intrigue telegraphed by the director, at odds with the whole theme of illusion. In effect, we know too much to keep a sense of wonder established by the early stage performances of impressive magic tricks.
Lost to us as well is the innocence that made us believe all we see in film, the greatest illusionist of all time. But then, love is for some an illusion, for others a reality too hard to bear. The Illusionist shows us both sides, and we're never certain where the truth lies. But it all is fun.
"By some illusion see thou bring her here:
I'll charm his eyes against she do appear." Oberon in A Midsummer's Night's Dream