Proficient in prestidigitation, interested in illusion, and mad about magic, Maccewill Yip checks in on The Illusionist and the short story on which it’s based.
One day at an after-school daycare, they pulled out the TV to occupy some of the kids’ time. Usually, they would put on movies like Spaceballs or The Next Karate Kid. But for some inexplicable reason, on this day they decided to put on a magic special. It wasn’t until later in reruns that I found out it was one of David Copperfield’s. If I concentrate I could probably remember more, but the two illusions that would always come to mind is a mentalism trick with a clock and a cutting a woman in half lengthwise illusion set to a Seal song.
Before watching the special, the only ideas of magicians I have were the cliches of pulling rabbits from hats and the more traditional sawing a woman in half. Since then, it seemed like there was an explosion of magic specials that would get me enraptured. My Super Bowl was the annual World’s Greatest Magic special on NBC, where I got to know the other big names in the field: Franz Harary, Max Maven, Jeff McBride, Juliana Chen, Lennart Green, etc. I awaited the frequent solo specials of Lance Burton and Penn and Teller. I joined in the hatred of Val Valentino, the Masked Magician from Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. And yes, I did enjoy some of the earlier street magic of David Blaine. (I was never big on Criss Angel of Mindfreak, though.
So of course I got into magic. I bought the magic books and kits, searched for magic stores (one of the destinations I had to make while in Disneyland), and raided the library. (Till this day, I will always remember 793.8, the Dewey decimal designation for magic books.) I had even joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians, or IBM (which had existed before the computer company). So it was my college days in Seattle at the local magic shop in Pike Place Market where I first read about the production of The Illusionist in a magic magazine. It piqued my interest, especially reading that it was going to star Edward Norton and that one of the technical advisors would be Ricky Jay, one of the big names I’ve seen brought up a lot in magic. Later, a friend mentioned she heard about the film and was interested in seeing it, and so off we went.
At the end of the film, I came out of the theater…well, indifferent. It was an okay film, but nothing too spectacular. The only parts I can remember liking was seeing the illusions that I knew were originally based on those created by French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the Father of Modern Magic and the inspiration for Ehrich Weiss, better known later in life as Harry Houdini. I thought maybe I missed something in the plot, in the grand plan put together by Edward Norton’s character, Eisenheim. I felt that I had to give the film a second watch to give it a chance, but I hadn’t been able to until it came up for reviewing in this blog.
Now that I’ve seen it a second time, I’m a little more forgiving of the movie, but still see faults in it. I have to agree with Roger Ebert in his review when he mentions that “The screenplay and direction aren’t particularly strong… so it wouldn’t be half as entertaining without the right actors.” Edward Norton is engaging and magnetic as the mysterious Eisenheim, Paul Giamatti does well as the conflicted Inspector Uhl, and Rufus Sewell is fittingly malicious as the Crown Prince Leopold. But then there’s the exception with Jessica Biel, who brings in the looks and a royal poise for her Princess Sophie but little else into the role, which is hardly more than that of a love interest. It’s not bad, just serviceable.
To prepare for the review, I decided to also read the original Steven Millhauser short story that the movie is based on, “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” The story spans the years of the life and career of Eisenheim, whereas the movie showed just the childhood and rushes the evolution of the illusions he creates for his show. The only other character that made it from the story, besides the apparitions Eisenheim conjures up for his later shows, is Inspector Uhl. All the romance with Sophia and the enmity with the Crown Prince that is in the movie is nowhere in the short story, which only mentions a brief love affair with a different woman that was later unrequited. However, several of the beats of the plot carried from the story to the screen, including his childhood in carpentry and the meeting of a magical stranger, the progression of illusions (Houdini-inspired orange tree, the painting that creates itself, and the apparitions), and as mentioned earlier, the conjuring of the apparitions.
It was the changes and additions to the movie that made the events in the last performances of Eisenheim more logical than the motives in the original story. Both the story and the movie showed that Inspector Uhl was an amateur magician, but whereas in the movie that created a certain amount of respect Uhl has for Eisenheim, in the short story he was more jealous. Therefore, for the arrest of Eisenheim during his last performance, the movie has the motive of the Prince who is worried about the “spirit” of Sophie creating suspicions upon himself, while the short story explains that the arrest was simply out of spite from Uhl, who made up claims about disturbing the peace. However, the story was able to better convey the unusualness of the illusion, especially to other professional magicians, as well as having additional scenes that built upon the hysteria and fandom Eisenheim garnered through what seemed to be the raising of dead spirits.
Coming back to the main changes of adding romance to the story, I thought it was integrated well. As mentioned earlier, it gave better motives for certain parts of the story. On the other hand, the characters that are created for the new plot seemed cliché and one-dimensional. I already mentioned Biel, who I re-emphasized had done well but didn’t add much. Sewell didn’t have much in his character as the doubting, abusive, and power-hungry Prince, but he added enough menace and disdain in his role to stand-out amongst Norton and Giamatti. However, a competent director and screenwriter could have probably made the original plot engaging without the addition of the love story. As proof, you have to look no further than Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which came out the same year as The Illusionist and justly considered the superior film. The Nolan film has several parts very much like the original Millhauser story, especially the rivalry with another magician.
I had mentioned that the first time I saw the movie, I thought I was missing something in the main plot, something from the plan that Eisenheim concocted for him and Sophie. The thought came at the very end of the film where Inspector Uhl, after chasing Eisenheim and ending up at the train station, seemed to have figured out every part of that plan and how it was pulled off right there and then in the middle of the station. So when I saw that all those years ago, I thought I was missing something that was suppose to have helped Uhl with his deductions to come up with his conclusions. But nope. After the second viewing, it just ends with him somehow able to infer every part of the grand Eisenheim scheme.
Some of the things I did enjoy, because of my interest in magic, was some of its history and the illusions themselves. Because there were two magic advisers, Norton got to learn real tricks and illusions. Thus, it lessened it for me when they decided to render some of the illusions, the orange tree in particular, in CGI. This was a real, physical trick that has astonished many people and I thought it would have been nice to see them attempt to recreate the real prop and present it as is. Sure, it would look a little mechanical to current audience, but to me that only adds to its charm through its antiquity.
Other than that, I liked the opening shots, with the shuttering, sepia shots that were made to recall that of older silent films. However, a lot of the shots after those childhood scenes seemed staid and generic to me, which surprised me to read afterwards that this film was nominated for a few cinematography awards, including an Oscar. So I decided to look up what it was going against that year and it seemed like it just inched its way in, with better works of the likes of Children of Men, The Prestige, and the deserved winner, Pan’s Labyrinth. Also, although I normally like the works of Philip Glass save for some bits here and there, I wasn’t compelled by the compositions he created for this film. I even played it while writing this review to see if there is something to help inspire me, but nothing. The score was also nominated for a few awards, but not the Oscar. However, Glass’ other score for that year, Notes on a Scandal, did get the nomination.
And that is probably what added in my disappointment of this film. It has all this talent and potential, but it left me feeling, then and now, as just a slightly above average film that could have been better. Part of this can be attributed to the director, Neil Burger. If you look at some of his filmography, it looks like a shortlist of average films that attempt to cash in on the craze of the moment, like this film to The Prestige, or Divergent versus Hunger Games. The Illusionist will probably be liked a lot by a few random people, but it would be the one film that you would always find, like others of its ilk, amongst the used movie section of Half-Price Books. I’m sorry to have to say this, but the magic is not there.
– One tiny moment I like was in the sepia backstory, where it got to the part with the magician who inspired Eisenheim disappearing, along with the tree he leaned against. There was something that was hokey camera effect, tongue-in-cheek humor, and randomness of magic that I wish was in the rest of the movie.
– The plan that Eisenheim and Sophie concocted has to assume a lot, including the fact that Leopold would be angry enough to want to chase Sophie a considerable distance through a hallway, down a stairway, and outside through the courtyard, while having someone who would be looking out and be witness, all to frame the Crown Prince. However, we often have to suspend our beliefs on similar plans during heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels.
– One of the storyline in the original short story that I would have loved for them to do was his clash against two rival magicians. Eisenheim was able to out-perform one of them. The second one seemed to have done a show that was better than Eisenheim, only for him to tear his face to show that it was a mask and that the second rival was Eisenheim all along. However, with the addition of the love story in the film, it would have been too much of a divergence from the main story. [Editor’s Note: Wocka wocka.]
– There seems to be a butterfly theme going in the film. It starts with the locket which has a butterfly design on it. Then there is the orange tree illusion ending with two butterfly that brings back a handkerchief which had vanished earlier. Finally, there is just two butterflies that flap around before the end credits.
– Speaking of the locket, the thing I couldn’t fully understand was with the design of twisting to unlock and open it to reveal the photograph, I can’t figure out how you were suppose to avoid tearing the picture in half at the twisting process? Magic? Also, apparently the locket has become its own popular thing, since browsing a few YouTube videos for this movie has brought up several people showing off a variety of different attempts to create a replica of this prop.
– Allegedly, this movie may have started out as an attempt to adapt Marvel’s Dr. Strange but they couldn’t get the rights and had to change it, which made me wonder what earlier screenplays of this project were like. Also, this was the second attempt. The first was Doctor Mordrid in 1992. Of course, the third attempt is going to be released later this year by Marvel themselves starring Benedict Cumberbatch.