When The Illusionist begins, Eisenheim has returned to the Austro-Hungarian capital city after 15 mysterious years abroad. Eisenheim's tale is initially told by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), and to help him recount what he's learned about the illusionist's past -- all rumor -- Burger employs the uneven lighting, pupil wipes, and general jerkiness of the silent film era. The colors alone -- just this side of sepia tones -- are beautifully rendered, and it's funny watching Norton run around like Chaplin, but the stylistic flourishes serve a purpose. Burger wants to show us what he's got up his sleeve: There's artifice here, but it isn't computer-generated.
That's good, given the period, but it's essentially important, given the themes. For more than 100 years, the West has drunk deeply of scientific materialism to the point that it's the continent's dominant ideology. Its high science, though, is still only parlor tricks and children's games, and its once revolutionary sentiments are now ripe for a counter-revolution. With monarchs playing science and scientists playing God (Freud, all the while, kicking about somewhere, coke-dazed), there are plenty of commoners rooting for the relatively egalitarian mysteries of the supernatural. So Eisenheim sets up and works his magic, drawing rave reviews and a fanatical following until a run-in with a childhood friend and her fianc & eacute; (the very science-minded crown prince) sidetracks things. There's a great duel between these two men, the prince and the magus, which is symbolic of everything Europe was struggling with at the time (those like Eisenheim, who see science is a descriptive tool versus those, like the prince, for whom science is absolute truth). The way the fight's rendered here -- as an elaborate deception and an intellectual pissing contest -- amply demonstrates the egoism involved on both sides. If it weren't that, though, it would still be a compelling battle with a satisfying love story. In a film consumed with class as much as science, it's a nice to find high art mingling with low.
It's all so cleanly crafted, subtly acted and dulcetly shot, a film so conspicuously evocative of time and place, that we're jarred at the end when Inspector Uhl -- the poor bastard caught in the middle of Eisenheim's battle with the prince and very much the pawn of both -- has something of a Keizer Soze moment. Lacking the literary sleight of hand Burger gave the rest of his film, the scene is too blatant and forceful, yanking us out of period and deflating the denouement's impact. Burger would have done well to extend through to the credits the magician's code he's clearly taken to heart, leaving us with a bit of mystery and something more to talk about.
Even then, though, there's something itself a bit magic about the way Uhl's eyes light, realizing he's been had. The extended shot that chronicles the way his face slides from satisfaction to confusion to realization to amazement makes the cynical anti-post-modernism of the finale less bothersome. And, with all the misdirection at work, it's exactly that -- the way Burger allows his actors the time they need to complete their transformations and tell the story of their emotions -- that allows this film about deception to speak so clearly.