The first time I saw it, I missed out on Eisenheim's backstory and so didn't immediately understand his history with the duchess. Especially the part where as a teenager he promises to help her run away and disappear. A dead giveaway.
I was also distracted enough not to see a twist coming (not just the particular twist of the movie - but a twist of any kind), and so by the end my face had that same astonished smile that Paul Giamatti's Chief Inspector wears as he realizes what's happened.
On second viewing, the movie holds up beautifully and lays out its intentions from the very start so that you can watch it at that Sixth Sense meta-level where the story still plays even though you know the secret. If I have a complaint, it's that the movie never even attempts to explain the ghosts and how he makes them move through crowds in real-time. But that's not actually important to the story.
In Dramatica terms, The Illusionist pulls off a nifty story telling trick by placing the bulk of the narrative and our attention on the Impact Character (Eisenheim) and Subjective storyline ("Don't make me arrest you"). The Overall Story is about the Crown Prince and his political machinations with the Main Character role being filled by the Chief Inspector who is in charge of keeping the population under control and the prince happy. On a personal level he is torn between his ambitions (loyalty to the prince) and his sense of right and wrong (the prince is a baaad man).
Why do I say that the Chief Inspector is the MC and not Eisenheim? Because it is through his eyes that we see Eisenheim. It is he who tells us the Illusionist's history and story and it is he who finally comes to realize what's happening at the end. When the audience is meant to be astonished by Eisenheim, we see the Inspector in the audience being astonished. As Eisenheim gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble with the Prince, it is the Chief Inspector's reactions that show us how much trouble. In true Dramatica fashion we see that through his interest in the Orange Tree illusion we get the "we two are alike" moment that sets up the MC/IC opposition.
Ultimately, it is a failure/good story. A failure because the Chief Inspector fails to solve the problem of the Illusionist for the Prince: the prince loses his life and the Chief Inspector his job. But it is good because the Chief Inspector admires the Illusionist and is able to solve his own personal issues by doing what's right instead of what's politically useful. In this way I believe the CI is a steadfast character. Someone who always intends to do the right thing but first must be compelled to start by the situation he finds himself in.
Although the Impact Character dominates the story, he is really just the engine that motivates the people around him. This allows him to be a compelling character while still preserving the mystery of his illusions.
Here's my Dramatica summary:
- Overall Story: Activity of Obtaining - The Crown Prince wants to be Emperor
- Main Character: Fixed Attitude of Innermost Desires - The Chief Inspector
- Impact Character: Situation of the Future - Eisenheim - Love and Magic
- Subjective Story: Manipulation of Changing One's Nature - The Illusionist's Rebellion aka "Don't Make Me Arrest You"