The Illusionist: Why This Thematically-Strong Film is Worth a Rewatch

Neil Burger's The Illusionist is still a wonderful watch, and totally committed to its theme.

While 2006’s The Illusionist performed admirably at the box office, it has always been slightly overshadowed by Christopher Nolan‘s superficially-similar The Prestigethat came out the same year.

However, unlike The Prestige,The Illusionistisn’t as interested in (or as good at, for that matter) explaining its magic tricks as it is exploring its theme: Illusionism as metaphor for film and for the (perhaps wishfully so) superficiality of socioeconomic structures. Starring Edward Norton as the mysterious magician Eisenheim, a man who uses his powers of illusion to save Sophie (Jessica Biel), the woman he loves, from the clutches of the evil Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

(Side note: It isn’t just the veterans in this film who make a rewatch pretty much mandatory, but also the actors playing the younger versions of Eisenheim and Sophie. You may recognize Aaron Taylor-Johnson from his turn as Quicksilver in the MCU and Eleanor Tomlinson currently stars as Demelza in BBC/PBS’ period drama hit Poldark.)

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Though Neil Burger’s direction is stylish (this movie never met a frame it didn’t think could be improved by a vignette) with a score from Philip Glass and an all-star cast, the result is one part confused narrative and one part underwhelming protagonist — saved by its all-parts tribute to the medium that makes it all possible: cinema. As we reach the magican drama’s 13th anniversary, let’s take a look at why this film deserves a rewatch…

The power of a theme…

The Illusionistisn’t always sure what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes, it is a love story. Other times, it is a mystery. Still other time it is a political drama. Most of the time, Edward Norton is the protagonist — except when Paul Giamatti is (though it’s really Rufus Sewell who steals the show in yet another underappreciated turn as a film’s requisite baddie).

No, The Illusionist isn’t always so clear with itself and the audience when it comes to plot or conventions of genre, but it is beautifully shot and impressively acted and there is one arena in which is singlemindedly clear: theme. And, of course, the theme is right there in the title: the power of illusion.

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As a film, The Illusionist is only occasionally interested in explaining many of its magic tricks. Because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about the trick; it’s about the process of getting someone to believe — specifically, of getting a skeptic to believe. In this case, that skeptical someone is Paul Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Uhl, a police detective whose sense of morality is threatened by his loyalties to the monarchy and his own ambitions to rise above his station.

Though the first half of The Illusionistis a relatively straight forward love story, the film seemingly loses interest in that plot halfway through its runtime and, instead, commits to a different focus already inherent in the love story’s telling. It lets Eisenheim become a supporting player in Uhl’s story, and switches to the mystery thriller track while Uhl tries to determine what Eisenheim, Sophie, and Leopold are all guilty (or not) of.

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In this way, Uhl becomes the audience surrogate. He is the man who is obsessed with the illusion. He is us, caught up in the wonder of seeing something we know is not there. Whenever we step into the cinema or pop in a DVD, we are asked to belief in something we know to be an illusion. It is in the flickering frames of The Illusionistsflashbacks and its shots of a early camera creating an illusion. They are reminders of the artifice that makes the viewing experience all possible, and a reminder that — even with faced with proof of the illusion — we will want to believe.

Leopold is punished not for his actions, but for his lack of belief.

One of the major things that stood out to me in the rewatching of this film is the undercooked nature of Leopold’s demise — and how well his character’s tragic arc goes along with the aforementioned theme. The way the film tells it to us: Leopold is an abuser of woman, a betrayer of his father, and a man who deserves his death.

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Here’s the thing, though. That’s not what they show us. We only hear that Leopold has a history of abusing women. The rumor that he killed one of his previous lovers is hearsay within the context of the film. We do see him slap Sophie — which is decidedly not cool — but, if we are just taking into account plot mechanics, Eisenheim and Sophie basically plot the ruin of a prince so they can continue their affair. Sure, he didn’t seem like an overly nice guy, but I’m still not ready to celebrate his suicide as a win. Let’s take a look at his final monologue:

Everyone’s completely incompetent. My father runs the Empire into the ground—no one notices, no one knows anything. I propose to clean up the mess and you thank me by betraying me. … There’s a thousand different voices screaming to be heard and nothing will be done! I’ve done everything I can. Too much. You’re all fools.

For all we know, the emperor is a terrible, unjust ruler and he’s trying to save the country — only to have Eisenheim and Sophie’s love story selfishly trump a coup. Yeah, I’m taking a lot of narrative leaps here, but they are about as wide as the ones the film asks us to take without making more the justification for Eisenheim’s choices a bit more explicit.

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As it stands in the film, Eisenheim could come off as a single-minded upstart who gets off by playing God with other people’s lives just so he can get back together with some hot girl he had a crush on when he was 14. He is saved, within the context of the film, by his commitment tyoA real mystery, wonder, and magic — by his ability to make us all belief in an age of enlightenment, science, technology, and skepticism.

Meanwhile, Leopold isn’t punished for his actions, so much for his lack of belief, for his skepticism. He is literally the only character who is smart (or at least paranoid) enough not to fall for Eisenheim’s illusion and, in the context of The Illusionist, that’s bad. Because this is the power of cinema, dammit, and you better bow down to it. Leopold tells his court (and the audience): “He tries to trick you. I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?”

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The Illusionistmakes it clear how it wants you to answer that question and, ten years after its initial release, there’s still something novel and admirable about its commitment to that thematic demand.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.

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