Adapted from a Steven Millhauser short story, The Illusionist is set in Vienna around 1900 against the backdrop of the kind of class privilege that somersaulted Europe into two horrific twentieth-century wars. The picture opens with a seemingly distraught magic performer (Edward Norton) being arrested on stage by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) and a dozen spike-helmeted imperial soldiers. The picture then backtracks to find the performer's origins as a rural Hungarian cabinet maker's teenage son (Aaron Johnson), whose life is transformed by magic. While doing tricks in the local square, the young magician makes the acquaintance of young Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Elinor Tomlinson), and soon the teens are sweethearts. Alas, the girl's parents disapprove of her association with a "peasant" and force the youngsters apart. Thereafter, the boy wanders the world for 15 years, studying the craft of sleight of hand and turning himself into a master illusionist.
Then he suddenly appears in Vienna and, using the stage name Eisenheim, quickly turns half-filled theaters into standing room only. Eisenheim becomes such a sensation that the haughty and dismissive Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) decides to catch the show and see what the furor is about. Leopold arrives in the company of his presumed fianc, none other than Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), now grown and more beautiful than ever. Pretty soon Eisenheim and Sophie are arranging rendezvous and rekindling their love, but when the Duchess breaks it off with the Prince, she ends up dead. We don't see Leopold actually commit the crime, but he's the only reasonable suspect, despite the police chief's arrest of another man.
From this point forward, The Illusionist becomes an intricate game of cat and mouse, or better, a for-keeps game of rock, paper, scissors. Viciously jealous of Eisenheim, Leopold orders Uhl to find a way to imprison the performer. Eisenheim, meanwhile, seemingly teetering on the edge of despair, tries to cajole Uhl into recognizing that the prince is a murderer. Much complicates the relations among these three men. Wielding promises about instant modernization, Leopold has been fashioning a coalition of influential nobles, including Sophie's family, to topple the emperor and allow Leopold to ascend to the throne immediately. Uhl's career has blossomed because of Leopold's patronage, and if he remains loyal he could become the chief law enforcement official in the empire. But Uhl is the son of a butcher and identifies with Eisenheim's comparable rise from the artisan class. Uhl is also a man who knows the difference between right and wrong. How he will act when he has to choose directly between them is one of the picture's successful narrative engines.
There are a lot of tricks for magic fans in this movie. There are card tricks we've seen Penn and Teller perform. Gloves turn into birds. Items vanish and reappear in seemingly impossible places. An elaborate illusion makes an orange seed turn into a citrus bush with live oranges bursting from its branches. One can imagine the fun in seeing these tricks live. But magic loses some of its appeal on film because we know that the very medium and its vast reliance on special effects is itself a kind of trick. When Eisenheim begins to conjure ghosts on stage, including that of his beloved Sophie, we are supposed to wonder if in his grief he has made some devilish bargain and acquired supernatural talents. But we determinedly want to hold on to the possibility that he's just orchestrating the greatest illusion of all time. Unfortunately, the script's speculation that he's somehow found a way to employ tools from the infant cinema just don't compute, and as the picture moves into its last half hour it loses some of its allure.
The first hour, however, held me unusually well. The story has grip, and even if the end is rushed, pat and sadly predictable, Edward Norton never loses command. Throughout his career, from Primal Fear to American History X to Fight Club to 25th Hour, Norton has played characters who are contradictory and unknowable, con artists, shape shifters. He's terrific here. And Giamatti is every bit his equal, reminding me of Wilford Brimley, whose great work in the 1980s always fleshed out secondary roles with the pulse of human complication. Norton and Giamatti are reasons enough for an outing to The Illusionist.