Given Hollywood's reliance on shopworn formulas and gimmicky flicks whose drawing power can be neatly boiled down to a catch phrase (see "Snakes on a Plane"), it's a relief to find a movie that moves lightly among the varied registers it evokes.
Buoyed by strong performances and, by current standards, a remarkably restrained use of special effects, "The Illusionist" is like a very good magic show, intermittently wowing us and filling the space between tricks with resolutely old-fashioned hokum that fondly recalls the historical pageants of film's early days.
As the movie opens, a performance by a conjurer, the mysterious Eisenheim (Edward Norton), is shut down by the Viennese chief of police (the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti). It takes 90 minutes of flashbacks to return us to this point, beginning with a dazzling sequence providing glimpses of Eisenheim's early life. As a boy of humble background in rural Austria, Eisenheim encounters an old wizard who introduces him to the ways of magic. He also has the bad luck to fall in love with the heiress of an ancient, noble family in the neighborhood. When they are detected by the girl's minders, they are, naturally, sundered. Thwarted, Eisenheim resolves to roam the world and master the spirit realm.
For these scenes, Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope have created a shimmering, painterly look with a muted palette that recalls the tinted picture postcards of a century ago. It's a transporting, almost fable-like exercise in unabashed nostalgia for a lost world, and it's the best thing in the picture.
Cut to Vienna, where the now hardened, crisply professional Eisenheim has established himself as a theatrical legend. Inevitably, when he asks for a volunteer from the audience, it turns out to be his lost childhood love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), now on the brink of engagement to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the fictional heir of the historical Emperor Franz Joseph. With this stroke, the machinery of the plot is set briskly into motion. Sensing he's losing Sophie's affections, Leopold sics the chief of police on Eisenheim, with instructions to expose him as a fraud, plots to oust his doddering sire from the throne and plunges into drunken, homicidal rages. A body is discovered with jewels from the royal saber nearby.
The title role is tailor-made for Norton. An expert at seeming to harbor turbulent emotion beneath a deceptively bland exterior, he's perfect for playing a character steeled by early disappointment, quietly planning his moment of revenge against the forces that have slighted him. As the embodiment of affronted royal hauteur, Sewell, too, has landed a role that showcases his talent for seething. Biel, who turns in a sensitive performance, looks every bit the Germanic beauty; she could have stepped out of a Klimt painting. And Giamatti, ever the professional, endows his role with a pluck and rough-edged charm that go nicely with the cool calculation he brings to the inspector's cat-and-mouse game.
The movie benefits greatly from its setting. This was a time of what now seems remarkable credulity, the golden age of cranks, when even many scientists, like William James in America, believed that bogus mediums and spirit-rappers might just be on to something. With delightful zaniness, Eisenheim's habit of raising the dead, especially at a run-down theater frequented by the working classes, sparks something of a reform movement. At one rally, a frock-coated gentleman with fearsome whiskers thunders that Eisenheim's act has opened the way to making the empire "a spiritual republic." The magician has become not just a romantic threat, but a political threat as well to the increasingly apoplectic crown prince.
In the final moments, "The Illusionist" has one last card to play. In a flash of insight (maybe), Giamatti reconstructs a version of events that he feels explains it all. This movie may spark a number of parking-lot debates, with some sure that all the mysteries have been cleared up, and others contending that we're left merely with speculation. The latter will have the better argument on their side. "The Illusionist" doesn't have a lot on its mind, but this clever, sometimes artful film has the qualities of magic: It leaves you pleasantly tantalized. (PG-13) 110 min. **** S