3 stars (out of four)
Crisply acted by a cast murmuring, in low tones, about truth and illusion, "The Illusionist" overcomes the major obstacle in films (and there haven't been many) about the world of stage magicians. The weak point tends to be the magic itself. Cinema is a medium in which illusions are all too easy to fashion and therefore all too easy to disbelieve.
Edward Norton takes the stage and turns coins into birds and conjures the ghosts of dead children, the results are a touch too computer-generated and 21st-Century-slick for a movie set in 1900 Vienna. But the film works anyway. It's a good-looking diversion. Writer-director Neil Burger went into his second feature with a specific visual palette in mind and the right city (Prague, in the role of fin de siecle Vienna) to bring it off. He also had the right actors.
Narrowing his eyes to let in as little light as possible, Norton carries with him an unsettling reserve that works well in the role of a master illusionist. Paul Giamatti plays his nemesis and grudging admirer, Chief Inspector Uhl. Giamatti is excellent; at once fussy and amused, he manages a witty variation on the authority figures Claude Rains used to play.
The surprise is Jessica Biel, best known for "7th Heaven," muscling her way through the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake and "Blade: Trinity" and for surviving "London," the worst independent movie ever. Turns out she's an actress--with range, yet, and a sure sense of period. That's one of the strengths of "The Illusionist": Everyone in it actually appears to be acting in the same era.
Burger adapted his script from a Steven Millhauser short story originally printed in Esquire and later published in the "Barnum Museum" collection. The story relays a dispassionate account of "the Jew from Bratislava" who embodied, Houdini-like, the anxieties and fantasies of an age. The dawn of the 20th Century shed light on what Millhauser described as "the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation."
The film, structured largely as a flashback, begins with Uhl arresting Eisenheim for vaguely defined "threats against the Empire." Lately his illusions have taken a sinister, supernatural turn. Either he's a spectacular trickster or trafficking in the black arts. With Uhl narrating, "The Illusionist" skips backward for a primer on Eisenheim's shadowy particulars. An early run-in with a traveling magician teaches him the wonder of creating fantastic persuasions from ordinary means. Years later all Vienna is clamoring for Eisenheim's magic.
Word reaches the Crown Prince, played by Rufus Sewell, who holds his cigarette in that untrustworthy Austro-Hungarian way. (Clearly, Sewell studied Conrad Veidt in "Casablanca.") The prince and his paramour, Sophie, played by Biel, attend one of Eisenheim's performances. It is not the first meeting between Eisenheim and Sophie: They were childhood sweethearts torn asunder by class and circumstance. The prince, a vicious climber on the brink of a politically advantageous marriage to Sophie, acquires an unwanted rival in Eisenheim.
There's a fair bit of plot in "The Illusionist," most of it not in the short story. A key twist proves relatively easy to spot (and I'm no mentalist in these matters). The climactic revelation may provoke conflicted feelings: You smile at the conceit of it, even as you're thinking, "So
what?" Happily the actors help you through the slippery passages. Giamatti in particular lightens the load. So does the Philip Glass score, propulsive in its minimalist style yet atypically warm and mellow.
With a gently inflected dialect and a gaze that redefines the word "steady," Norton allows the audience few surprises. This is deliberate. So is the moment when Eisenheim spies Sophie for the first time in years; suddenly, Norton widens that stoic squint and the effect is like splashing paint on a wall full of charcoal drawings.
Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope lend "The Illusionist" a faded-watercolor patina inspired by the Lumiere brothers' elegant early 20th Century autochrome technique. The images resemble hand-tinted drawings gone slightly to seed. It's apt for this setting. Burger thinks in pictures. He's less intuitive when it comes to directorial rhythm; some of the later passages requiring a sense of snap and urgency merely glide along. Yet Burger's very smart with actors. (His debut picture, "Interview with an Assassin," features a marvelous turn from character actor Raymond J. Barry as a man claiming to be the second JFK gunman.) "The Illusionist" may have been a more dynamic experience with someone other than Norton in the lead. But this way it's more of an ensemble piece.
Written and directed by Neil Burger, adapted from the short story by Steven Millhauser; cinematography by Dick Pope; edited by Naomi Geraghty; production design by Ondrej Nekvasil; music by Philip Glass; produced by Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman. A Yari Film Group release; opens Friday at the AMC River East, Kerasotes Webster Place and the Century Evanston theaters. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and violence).
Eisenheim - Edward Norton
Chief Inspector Uhl - Paul Giamatti
Sophie von Teschen - Jessica Biel
Crown Prince Leopold - Rufus Sewell