Magic is tough thing to pull off in movies -- cinema's images are already an illusion, an elaborate fantasia by way of flickering light. Yet writer/director Neil Burger keeps this sumptuous period melodrama grounded despite its many sleights of hand.
Like his head-scratching pseudo-documentary debut Interview with an Assassin (2002), Burger's new film delights in playing with an audience's imagination. And like any good magician, he's a master of misdirection.
Burger smartly presents The Illusionist's fantastical elements -- the film is based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser -- in an organic manner; subtle atmospherics trump elaborate special effects. The setting is 1900 Vienna, a time and place where new schools of thought are being espoused by the likes of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler
We're sure of one thing: He yearns for the love of a woman, specifically that of Sophia von Teschen (Jessica Biel), a beautiful duchess whom was once his childhood sweetheart. After many years apart, Eisenheim discovers that she's currently on the arm of Crown Prince Leopold (a wickedly mustachioed, wonderfully intense Rufus Sewell), a man so deluded by power that he's willing to overthrow his father to get what he wants. Certainly no son-of-a-cabinetmaker magician is going to wrest his girl from him, even if she's just another prop in his play for power.
Eisenheim baffles us with a variety of spectacular, seemingly supernatural feats. He plants seeds in a flowerpot and within minutes coaxes an orange tree from tiny sprout to full bloom. How does he do it? We're never quite sure. And, despite a furious and largely unnecessary finale that nearly ruins the film's mesmerizing spell, Burger's not telling.
No one is more curious than Chief Inspector Uhl (a stellar Paul Giamatti in old-school character-actor mode), whom Leopold has ordered to shut down Eisenheim's act after being humiliated during one of the magician's many deft performances. Uhl is a seemingly good man -- made even more sympathetic by the expressive (and expressively bearded) Giamatti -- who is swayed by the allure of Leopold's grand political ambitions, an angle The Illusionist mines with mixed results.
While the social explorations add texture, it's the film's lush romanticism that sticks. Eisenheim will do anything to be with his beloved Sophia -- even if it means bringing her back from the dead.
Burger works well with his actors, yielding fine performances from everyone here, including the usually unaffecting Biel. (She was the weakest link in the otherwise entertaining if softheaded London, a low-budget melodrama that hit the spot when I downloaded it from digital cable one recent late night.) Norton has rarely been better: His squinty, perpetually evasive eyes and elusive presence synch well with the magician's shifty nature.
His Eisenheim sports thick, swept-back hair and a robust goatee, adornments that add a necessary layer of mystery to Norton's boyish features. Pair this performance with his overlooked turn as a loose-screwed, cradle-rocking cowboy in Down in the Valley, and it seems Norton is finally ready to build on a career trajectory that peaked with the late-'90s one-two punch of American History X and Fight Club.
Burger knows how to pick behind-the-scenes collaborators, too. Cinematographer Dick Pope (known for his work with British filmmaker Mike Leigh) shoots The Illusionist in sepia tones, his frame's outer edges burnished with a soft, silent movie glow. Philip Glass' adventurous score is just another element in Burger's elegant puzzle, a film that digs deeper than one might expect -- or even realize. Grade: B+