In writer-director Neil Burger's spellbinding adaptation of the Steven Millhauser story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," Edward Norton plays a conjurer whose most elaborate trick is performed offstage. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, the picture tells the story of a cabinetmaker's son who falls in love with magic and a young duchess at about the same time. When their relationship is discovered, he's forced to leave home. After 15 years of roaming Russia, Asia Minor and the Orient, he makes a triumphant return with a new name and an act that instantly makes him the toast of the city.
Shooting in Prague, the director pulls a meticulous evocation of time and place out of the hat. Accompanied by one of Philip Glass' most transfixing movie scores to date, the film is a visually spectacular period piece in which centuries-old architecture and state-of-the-art CGIs are blended to mesmerizing effect. Norton gives one of his finest performances so far in the role of the enigmatic showman. It's no accident that Burger opens with him in mid-performance and cuts between Eisenheim and members of his audience. Burger zooms in on their faces. Each is full of wonder, curiosity and expectation. Clearly each ticket buyer is thinking the same thing: How does he do it? What will happen next? I happened to glance right then at the faces around me. Each face in the theater displayed the same look. He had us at presto.
In the course of Burger's script, which modifies the source material liberally, Norton's character puts on two varieties of show. In the first, he toys with conundrums of space and time, slowing the descent of a dropped ball and summoning an orange tree to sprout from a seed in mere minutes. In addition to drawing ever-larger crowds, his act also attracts the attention of two individuals who will complicate his life enormously.
The first is Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a pouty potentate with a brutal streak. The second is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an amateur magician whose professional fortunes rely upon his remaining in the royal lout's good graces. As fate would have it, the beauty to whom Leopold is about to become betrothed is the same duchess Eisenheim loved as a boy. Jessica Biel plays her as an aristocratic pawn. In submitting to the marriage, she is bowing to the will of her family and to behind-the-scenes considerations of politics and power. With her childhood sweetheart back in town, however, she begins to wish someone would make all that disappear.
The prince decides to see for himself what all the fuss is about and attends one of Eisenheim's performances. He volunteers the duchess for one of the magician's illusions, a move that sets in motion an intriguing battle of wits and wills. Leopold is spoiled brat enough to believe that his brand of power is the only one his people - and certainly his bride-to-be - should regard with awe. The greater the magician's hold on the public, the more charismatic he becomes in the eyes of the duchess and the more determined the prince becomes to bring him down.
For Chief Inspector Giamatti, that means it is necessary for him to find an excuse to close the show. The actor does a marvelous job in the role, spryly walking the line between blushing admirer and unshakable adversary. Clearly, he has tremendous respect and, eventually, even great fondness for the man whose ruin he has been ordered to orchestrate. It's equally apparent that he means to ride Leopold's coattails to the very top of Viennese society, and is willing to compromise his principles - if only to a point.
Eisenheim's most masterful achievement is manipulating events so as to push the inspector right up to that point, and then beyond it. A tragedy occurs - or appears to - roughly midway through the movie, and this changes a number of key elements in the central dynamic. It also leads to a revamping of the performer's show. A darker, more mysterious mood pervades the hall as Norton conducts this second type of exhibition, in which he demonstrates the ability to summon to his stage hologram-like manifestations of the departed. Seriously creepy in their utter non-creepiness, these phantoms seem to materialize in response to a tremendous exertion of the conjurer's will. They then respond to questions shouted to them by the audience, proving they're not some sort of prerecorded projection. Suffice it to say that events are brought to a head when one such specter turns out to be the duchess, and the public accuses Leopold of causing her death.
The Illusionist is handsomely shot, superbly acted and written with exceptional cleverness. Too many movies today rely on the surprise twist. Burger's provides the perfect occasion for using the device, and the director supplies a last-minute, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't moment other movies will be hard-pressed to match between now and award season. This is one of the summer's most original creations, a display of imagination, wit and style guaranteed to leave audiences wondering what other marvels this filmmaker has up his sleeve.