A correction was made to this review on Jan. 26, 2006.
A bizarre story of intrigue, magic and murder in turn-of-the-century Vienna casts a considerable spell in “The Illusionist.” Impeccably crafted second feature from writer-director Neil Burger (2002’s “Interview With the Assassin”) will be tricky to position commercially, since it will strike some arthouse types as pulpy and conventional, and may prove too aristocratically rarefied for the general modern public. But an enterprising distrib could locate an appreciative audience for the mesmerizing aspects of this classy and well-acted period melodrama.
Adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser (winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer”), the yarn centers on a stage magician whose powers are so extraordinary they eventually threaten to subvert the power structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Events may require a considerable suspension of disbelief, and some of the tricks could never have been pulled off before a live audience, but the conviction of Burger and his skilled cast, along with the propulsive waves of Philip Glass’ score and the trappings of Viennese splendor, circa 1900, provide a persuasive argument in favor of going along for the ride.
A brief prologue shows the celebrated illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) being arrested by Vienna police on stage before an outraged audience, as Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) inquires if there isn’t some charge that can be pinned on him. A brief flashback illustrates the adolescent first love between Eisenheim and the lovely, upper-class Sophie and how, once their relationship was forbidden, the young man left Austria to explore the world.
Fifteen years later, Eisenheim is making his name to the extent that the Crown Prince attends his show in the company of his presumed fiancee, the very same Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Leopold offers up Sophie when Eisenheim requests a volunteer from the audience who is not afraid of death.
Asked by the prince what trick he may perform at a subsequent command performance, Eisenheim begins his persistent assault on his royal rival by impudently responding, “Perhaps I’ll make you disappear.” When the stunt he does perform further insults Leopold, the prince demands the magician’s show be shut down.
Caught between the two men is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an urbane fellow who owes his rise to Leopold and must do his bidding. Intrigued as he is by the gifted Eisenheim, he warns the enigmatic performer, whose secrets he repeatedly tries to uncover, how easily disposable both of them are.
But nothing can prevent Eisenheim from reuniting with Sophie, who after a night together informs her lover that Leopold intends to announce their engagement. Eisenheim convinces Sophie to call it off, but Leopold, tragically, isn’t the sort to take rejection gracefully.
Pic’s second half hinges on the further evolution of Eisenheim into an extraordinary conjurer, one who can make “ghosts” of real people appear and speak onstage. He becomes such a people’s hero that he is suspected of fomenting a “spiritual republic,” and so bedevils Leopold that the latter assumes a disguise to attend a performance.
Collision of the two men presents the all-too-knowing Uhl with a crisis of conscience that ultimately leads to a resolution both far-fetched and not at all out of line with what the illusionist’s powers have led one to accept.
Title character is deliberately presented as remote and unknowable. His powers, and the intellect that enables them, seem superhuman, but he is driven above all by a lost love. Working within these strictures, Norton creates a commanding figure, one who would never attempt anything he thought he couldn’t accomplish.
Fastidiously groomed in an unaccustomed period and foreign part, Giamatti is a delight in the Claude Rains role of an epicurean of crime, secrets and social mores. Handily employing a refined English accent where the others lay on a light Austrian veneer, Biel is entirely stunning enough to fight to the death over, and Sewell is credibly arrogant and cruel as the heir apparent. Actors across the board speak in civilized, hushed tones, which furthers the mysterious mood.
Production benefits greatly from the glorious Prague locations that stand in for Vienna, as cinematographer Dick Pope captures them, along with Ondrej Nekvasil’s production designs and Ngila Dickson’s costumes, with subdued richness.