Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) sits in a chair on a bare, gas-lit stage in front of a packed audience. His coal-black eyes are mere slits. His brow is furrowed. He seems almost feverish, as if he were about to be in the full throes of a consumptive coughing fit. We see numerous police officers among the crowd, led by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). As Eisenheim sits and stares intently, a shadowy image to his right begins to appear. At that moment, Inspector Uhl takes to the stage and proclaims that Eisenheim is to be arrested for threatening the Austrian empire.
So begins the gorgeously filmed The Illusionist. It received an Academy Award nomination for cinematography, and no wonder. At times the film appears to be lit only by the lights of Eisenheim's theatre stage. There is a very specific softness to the scenery, as if you were looking at the world through an 1880's sepia-toned photograph. The performances are softened as well, becoming crisp only when the character wants to get a point across. Although some visual effects are used in the film, arguably the most arresting effects are the eyes of Norton himself. When he commands a volunteer to his stage to look only at him, she has no choice. His stare is so intense that it would be impossible to look at anything else. The score, composed by Philip Glass, completes the film so fully that it seems a crime that it wasn't nominated for an Oscar as well.
The film may be called The Illusionist, but the true focus is on Giamatti's inspector and not the illusionist himself. The events are seen mostly from his point of view. When we learn of what happened in Eisenheim's peasant past and of his forbidden love affair with Countess Sophie von Teschen (a revelatory Jessica Biel), it is because the inspector has questioned countless witnesses. Uhl attends every on-screen performance of Eisenheim, so we see the stage from his vantage. We see Uhl taking command when necessary, and showing obeisance to the conniving and rumoured-murderous Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Leopold believes Eisenheim to be both a fraud and a threat to his (future) reign, and so he sends Uhl to arrest him. When Uhl finally solves the mystery at film's end, we solve it with him.
It would, of course, be a grave mistake to reveal the central mystery of the film, for that would ruin the surprises. It is safe to say that although the main mystery of the film is solved at the conclusion, The Illusionist leaves plenty for the audience to ponder long after the disc is returned to Netflix.
* Warning: Spoilers ahead*
It is impossible to consider this movie in any substantial way without thinking about the central storyline. Eisenheim and Sophie begin a forbidden relationship while still in their teens; a chance meeting on the street leads to a love affair. Eisenheim is from a poor family and Sophie is an aristocratic duchess, so naturally they are not to forge any form of relationship. Eisenheim leaves Vienna for many years in order to study the arts of magic and illusion. After returning to Vienna to begin performances, he reconnects with Sophie, who is now involved with Crown Prince Leopold. It becomes evident that their desire for one another is as strong as ever, and the two engage in sexual relations (the cinematic equivalent of saying, See? They are in love! They're having sex!).
How do they ensure that they live happily ever after? How do they escape the clutches of Leopold, who has been known to physically assault his lovers and is rumored to have actually killed one of them? They conjure an illusion - fake Sophie's death, implicate the Crown Prince, and reconnect when safety seems assured. Their plan works: Eisenheim's plant of a physician makes the right people believe Sophie is dead; the Viennese crowd, and eventually the police inspector, believes Leopold is responsible; and Leopold commits suicide rather than face the consequences of his assumed actions. Leopold committed grievous sins in his past, yes, and would likely face no punishment since the police inspector "has no authority" in the halls of the emperor, but he did not murder Sophie.
One question to think about is this: what are you willing to do, or not do, for love?