Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is as threadbare as they come. Focusing on the mysterious Eisenheim and his seemingly-otherworldly magical abilities as they’re unleashed on turn of the century Vienna, the story doesn’t give more than a passing glance at things like character, plot or narrative.
Neil Burger’s cinematic adaptation of that story, The Illusionist, attempts to fill in those holes. In the film, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) still has unparalleled illusionary gifts. But his skills are aimed at winning the heart of Sophie (Jessica Biel), the Austrian aristocratic flower he fell in love with as a child but was separated from because of class differences. Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), all but betrothed to Sophie, and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), Leopold’s eyes and ears in Vienna, stand in the way of Eisenheim’s romantic intentions.
Unfortunately, Burger’s efforts are almost as cursory as Millhauser’s. Despite an eerie, phantasmagoric visual landscape created by cinematographer Dick Pope and an ethereal score from Philip Glass, The Illusionist is shallow and derivative. While magic is an important part of the film, it is hardly crucial. The set-ups and knock-downs of plot in The Illusionist could happen with a magician or a crafty criminal as the center of the story.
This becomes most apparent at the film’s climax. Burger crafts a film slightly meatier than the short story, bringing a real sense of doom and consequence to the proceedings. People are hurt. People die. People are punished for their crimes. Or so it seems.
After the denouement — one ripped nearly step for step from the Usual Suspects playbook — The Illusionist drops its costly tone, rendering it inexcusably phony. Burger also leads us to care for characters in certain ways — Eisenheim, the unfairly persecuted magician; Sophie, the unfairly repressed innocent; Leopold, the unfair jerk — only to make us feel smarmy by turning our heroes into, at best, anti-heroes; at worst, villains. The climactic twist is wholly unmotivated, and it doesn’t aid the narrative. It hurts it, and the film ends flatly as a result.
The Illusionist is ultimately a failure of Burger’s storytelling abilities. His film is less about story and more about manipulating narrative elements into the perceived cleverness of the ending. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” might not be much of a short story, but it deserves better than the shortsighted treatment Burger gives it. And so do we.