Writer-director Neil Burger, an émigré from commercials, made some noise with his debut indie feature Interview with the Assassin. The Illusionist, his handsome follow-up, is, at the very least, definitely a "looker." Filmed in Prague, which aptly stands in for late 19th-century Vienna, this adaptation of a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser is visually distinctive, thanks to the overall production and costume design and the richly appointed Empire interiors, Old World streetscapes and charming rural landscapes that have made Eastern Europe a production destination.
Finery is nice, but it's the terrific cast and nicely paced, weird tale that make this one worth the detour. Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is thriving as a successful Viennese magician until long-lost childhood friend Sophie (Jessica Biel), an aristocrat now engaged to evil Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), again encounters him when the Prince sends her to the stage as a volunteer. When Eisenheim and Sophie rekindle the friendship, love blooms and the Prince grows enflamed. Knowing that Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is as enamored as he of power, the Prince orders Uhl to get rid of the magician.
Eisenheim's tricks are hardly run of the mill; they involve spirits and other feats beyond the usual now-you-see-it fare. While Uhl yearns to become Vienna's police chief or even mayor, he also becomes obsessed with Eisenheim's magic. Meanwhile, after Sophie lets her Prince know that she will not marry him and be part of his plan to join the royal families of Austria and Hungary, the Prince has his revenge.
Authorities discover Sophie's body in a stream and Uhl must find the culprit. Mystery is piled upon mystery and woe upon woe for Eisenheim, until a denouement that will leave audiences divided; many will go for the ride, others will cry "Whoa!"
As Eisenheim's real name is Abramowitz and power (or the will to same) is also at the core of this story, The Illusionist, beyond its embrace of mystery, romance and the supernatural, emits hints of heavier themes such as anti-Semitism and fascism. But it's the atmospheric intrigue that dominates and captivates.
Both Norton, subtly putting across a German-tinged, slightly English accent, and Giamatti, whose character also lends the voice-over, are again utterly convincing, and Sewell makes the Prince deliciously awful.
Employing many a dramatic angle and a burnished palette that underscores the bygone era, D.P. Dick Pope successfully leverages the visual trove Prague affords. And Philip Glass' score also establishes just the right moods, supporting both the larger themes and the nostalgic settings.
But as hokey as it is arty, The Illusionist, unlike its eponymous hero, may struggle to find its audience. That all important word of mouth will depend upon early audiences buying its "tricks." Hopefully, the curse of phony "Europudding" films, in which ur-European characters speak English, has done its own disappearing act.