As a generation, we are used to illusions, so much so that the question of how the act is performed is not so important as how perfectly it is performed. We can watch in awe as an orange tree bloom in seconds from a small seed in Neil Burger’s new film The Illusionist, but we all know that the miracle is merely another one of the wonders of today’s advanced CGI. One could wonder if Burger’s film would have the power that it possesses in the absence of its romantic motif since we have lost so much of this wonder for the how.
The Illusionist is a lush and beautiful film that takes us through the fascination with magic and spiritualism of the late 19th century, with side stops into the clandestine politics of the moribund dynasties of Vienna. Here too are the familiar themes of rich vs. poor, noble vs. peasant, and that favorite American theme of a man of humble beginnings arising to make himself great.
But above all, The Illusionist is a love story. Norton and Jessica Biel star as an unlikely pair of lovers from opposing backgrounds who find themselves again after many years apart and do all in their power to be together again. The romantic aspect of the film is perhaps not as fleshed-out as some would prefer, largely because this would interfere with the direction of the story, but the few moments that we share with the principal lovers are enough to share their affection and their grief later on.
I have always been a fan of Norton, but I have to say that this was Giamatti’s show. Paul Giamatti, starring as Chief Inspector Uhl, finds his conscience and his heart in turmoil as he attempts to follow the stories of Norton and Biel. Writing a day after viewing the film, it is his eyes and his reactions that stand out the most in my memory.
The ending, surprisingly, comes as something of a confusing mixture of happiness and disappointment after the complicated tale trip through spiritualism and intrigue through which we have been led. Although I enjoyed the show and certainly recommend it, it struck me as simply too good to be true. Still, as Coleridge advised, suspend your disbelief and you’ll be treated to one of the most consistently entertaining and endearing movies of the year.