For mine, a movie review that merely recounts the plot of a film is evidence that the writer is incapable of insight. Sure enough most reviews are like this. As is this one!
In amongst some unnecessary flashbacks, we are introduced to our hero Edward Abramowitz, A Jewish magician in turn of the century Austria (that's the old turn of the century, not the recent one). The ever redoubtable Ed Norton does the honours here, cast due to his singular ability to stare into the camera. This is not a criticism. He's very good at it. His semi-strangled Austrian accent is less successful, but not as bad as David Wenham's horrible affectation in the appalling 300 (and Van Helsing and The Proposition). David, knock it off mate!
Where was I? Oh yes, thanks to a superior ability to balance an egg on a stick, the young Abramowitz captures the heart of a beautiful young duchess who shall grow up to be Jessica Biel. No one much cares for this episode of young love since our egg-balancer is not the right sort of fellow, which is to say he's a peasant. This is a curious description since he's no such thing. In fact he's the son of a cabinet maker, an artisan. Certainly this would be objectionable to royalty, but not nearly as objectionable as his being Jewish. For the audience this fact is unmissable and yet somehow our cinematic Austrians of 120 years ago never remark upon it. Um... okay.
So our young hero is dudded out of the girl, never to see her again. Or until the second reel, whichever comes first. In this second reel/second incarnation he is now Eisenheim the Illusionist, the sensation of Vienna. The duchess, hanging off the arm of the archduke (the son of the emperor) is his volunteer from the audience. This is absurdly fortuitous, sure, but cinematically unremarkable. And what of the archduke, our hero's rival? Is he a charming, erudite fellow admired by all? Of course not. He has our hero's gal and therefore things must be arranged such that we hate him. A flick of the wrist and voilà, he deserves whatever our hero inflicts upon him.
It's Eisenheim's lot throughout this film to be opposed by those insufficiently dazzled by his ability and who object to him taking what he rightfully deserves. Clearly he deserves the duchess. She is one of the dazzled. The archduke is not dazzled. Bafflingly he seems entirely uninterested in watching a magic show. The first trick is barely over before he madly leaps up looking for wires and mirrors. What a strange man. Do such creatures exist? They do here and just as well too. Without the archduke establishing himself as such a dreadful fellow, Eisenheim's leaping into bed with his fiancé within ten screen-minutes of having met her again would make the archduke an object of sympathy. Perish the thought.
In the face of such thusly imagined villainy-deserving-of-punishment it is perfectly proper that Eisenheim smashes the archduke. And since he's a genius with a god-like ability to subvert reality, he doesn't so much do it himself, as delude everyone else into acting in his interests. This follows two strands.
The first and most screen-time consuming is Eisenheim's new act, in which the dead are brought back to life. This has only the most tenuous effect on the plot. Nothing results from it that couldn't have been achieved half an hour earlier with a single shot of the chief of police picking up the important clue. Truth be known, this thread is inserted for other purposes. Firstly it takes up screen time and gives us a bit more magical FX illusion, a useful thing in a film called The Illusionist. Secondly it further establishes the archduke as villain by making clear he is hated by his people. Thirdly and most significantly, it is there so that we might better understand the greatness of our hero. His magic acts do not merely entertain. They make society a better place by moving the people to wish for the downfall of their rulers. Apparently this mini-revolution pivots on spirits and spirituality. Good luck deciphering the gibberish conversations setting this out. Best to just go with it. Astoundingly in a societal upheaval based on 'spirituality', the church is nowhere to be seen. This is curious. Surely the director could have arranged a three minute scene to cast the church in a bad light. Pick up your act Hollywood!
The second plot strand involves the murder of the duchess and is the immediate vehicle of the archduke's destruction. It's this besting of the royal by our Jewish magician that is the whole purpose of the exercise. We're led to believe the archduke killed the duchess. He didn't of course. It was all a sham. Astoundingly the archduke never once declares his innocence. If he did we might rightly view him as a victim. And we can't have that.
So, the duchess didn't die. She merely pretended she was dead in order to blame the archduke for a crime he didn't commit. But let's not look at it in that way. Best we go along with the film's single-line-of-dialogue insinuation that he would have killed her anyway. Thus everything that takes place is not an act of wickedness but rather a testament to our hero's virtue and brilliance: the duchess might conceivably have been killed and now she lives; and the archduke might have, had he done it, escaped punishment for the crime, but now her fictional death is avenged and he lies dead. Yay! Everybody lives happily ever after.
Not least amongst the happily ever after is the chief of police. Sure he was the means of bringing about the archduke's death, but let's not view him as Eisenheim's puppet. Really Eisenheim did him a favour by assisting him to cast off the yoke of a fellow who madly didn't like magic and was otherwise rude to him. Upon the chief of police finally arriving at the flashback-truth of the plot he had been involved in, he seems almost pleased to have been so used. Hats off to such an impossible riddle! Who wouldn't feel flattered to be granted a glimpse into the mind of such a genius and serve as his pawn. The thought that one might be appalled and aghast at having been tricked into killing a perfectly innocent man is nowhere to be seen. And quite right too.
One question remains. Why was this film set in Austria? Why not set it in London? Hell, why not New York? It would have worked just dandy and made no difference to the plot, characters, budgets, locations, sets, or any other thing. But it wasn't. It was deliberately set in Austria. Why might that have been? If you think it's for the ambience you don't understand Hollywood, ha ha.
Meanwhile, if any sub-editors responsible for filling in the copy of TV movie guides happen to be reading, I shall help them out. Merely cut and paste the following, and hey presto, the job is done.
The Illusionist 2006 (drama) PG - Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti. A Jewish magician in Austria who wishes to kill the archduke and end up with his fiancé tricks the chief of police into acting as his pawn, whilst also sowing dissent amongst the population.