Magic in the 19th Century
by Eliphas Levi
Smoke and mirrors with CGI assist are designed to create the illusion that this is to be taken seriously. A lot of serious artistry has gone into it, along with performances that can be described as earnest and Jessica Biel's beauty that some males might describe as magical. Tech credits, from Dick Pope's lavish cinematography that sets the tone for Vienna at the turn of the century, Philip Glass' appropriately eerie score, and the CGI team to put new wrinkles on magic tricks, are as fine as such contributions get.
There is a story about Eisenheim's beginning as a magician. He purportedly was on his way across the countryside when he came upon an old man resting under a tree. The man performed a magic trick that defied natural law and held Eisenheim spellbound until he, the illusionist himself, disappeared, evaporating into the ether. This may be a true account of Eisenheim's inspiration... or it may not. There might not have been an old magician under a tree. There might not even have been a tree. But, whatever the truth and by whatever unknown inspiration, Eisenheim was moved to develop his powers at a young age.
The legend is recounted by the man who is charged with controlling or eliminating the master showman because of the threat he poses on royalty. Chief Inspector Uhl (the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti, with beard and moustache) is answerable to the crown, in the demanding form of the ambitious Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).
Eisenheim's troubles start when, as a young man (Aaron Johnson), he is spied by an equally young girl riding on horseback. Though she is of the aristocratic breed, she sees something in the lad that fascinates her. And besides, she's a rebel concerning social status. As they defy it by meeting clandestinely, though they both realize the problems of crossing the class barrier of the time, and the threat of young Sophie (Eleanor Tomlinson) getting cut off from her natural inheritance and station in life. It is evident to them both, but their love for one another boils the concern away.
When Eisenheim's magic isn't great enough to make their hiding place on castle grounds disappear, they're discovered and he's banished. He doesn't return for many years during which he employed himself in the perfection of his art. Eisenheim in adult form (Edward Norton) can now create illusions that defy the realities of the physical world. In short order he is the rage of Vienna and all the more so when his show is attended by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) himself. Fearing no man or circumstance, Leopold is all too happy to provide his assumed betrothed Sophie (Biel) when the magician asks for a volunteer. Not a smart move but one required to move the story along according to plan. It's not the only bit of contrivance here but, no matter, it brings the lovers together again.
The recognition between the two childhood lovers is almost instantaneous but the passions and problems that stem from the reunion are only beginning. Eisenheim has some making up to do and knows no bounds when it comes to the challenge of pitting his powers against political ones. He has the idea that he can perform miracles with his art, and therein lies the tale.
With the consionable inspector conflicted between his own fascination for the spectacular powers Eisenheim possesses, and the threat they pose to Leopold whose designs go beyond the possession of Sophie all the way to taking the empire, dangers lurk in every trick performed, with his greatest trick in protecting his Sophie from harm. In this, his calm cleverness is put to the test of his life.
If Norton's performance is limited by anything it may be in the coldly calculating character he creates. Yet... though he isn't exactly snuggly, the ardor for his woman attests to some considerable heat flowing in the man's veins and lets us see him as the moral figure in the clash of competing interests. Giamatti is in fine supporting form in a role that has been given almost equal screen time and he acquits himself well--if not well enough to justify the unbalancing of the screenplay with him as a fourth major element in the drama.
Biel, with her padded-lip sensuality and perfection of form, is entirely justified as the object of powerful forces and men's hearts. This costume moment puts her in a new context, away from her usual action movie motifs. As one of her suitors, Sewell is smartly smug as he imparts a properly annoying sense of assumptive superiority.
The cinematic tricks are always evident as just what they are: the manifestations of a much later age of trickery. And while they may, in a strict sense, contradict the setting and violate history, their contextual design keeps us in a trance of intense concentration. We anxiously anticipate the next phenomenon in Eisenheim's inexhaustible bag of visual deception. Screenplay exaggerations and directorial misdirections aside, this is where entertainment lies.
~~ Jules Brenner
The Soundtrack (Philip Glass)
The Soundtrack (Philip Glass)