The thing about the relationship between history and magic is that one man’s magic is another man’s engineering. This is the second film in as many months about the developments made in the dark arts of magic in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Where Christopher Nolan’s superior The Prestige developed the many myths that surrounded the bizarre life and times of legendary magic pioneer Nikola Tesla through a story of rivalry and friendship, The Illusionist brings an odder and more romantic twist to the proceedings.
Based on Steven Millhauser’s short story Eisenheim the Illusionist, writer/director Neil Burger’s film tells an old fashioned story of master magician Eisenheim’s attempts to beat the violence and corruption of the age he lives in (epitomised by Rufus Sewell’s seedy Crown Prince Leopold). The question is, what drives him to do so? It is of course his childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel).
The Illusionist is a twisty, turny, intriguing tale of havoc in the Hapsburg kingdom. But between lead Edward Norton’s mannered performance, and the oddly cheesy Europud feel to the whole thing, this feels like the kind of project Milos Forman may have passed on at the time he made Amadeus. As an investigation of manipulation of light, space, time, and escapism and the influence of Tesla and co on the magic of cinema, however, (especially Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, made a decade after this film is set) The Illusionist is at least diverting and thought provoking.