But wait. This is not only or mainly a love story. Rather, it’s a slender but satisfying rhapsody on appearance and reality. Eisenheim’s stage show is pulling in big crowds. When Prince Leopold attends a showing and allows his soon-to-be fiancée to assist in an illusion, Eisenheim (Ed Norton) recognizes her as Sophie (Jessica Biel), his childhood love.
But the pragmatic Prince (Rufus Sewell) is suspicious of Eisenheim’s trickery. Making machinations of his own to overthrow his father, the Prince sees Sophie as a pawn in his game. And as Eisenheim plans one last illusion, events soon spiral into mystery, murder and revenge. It’s up to the bemused Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to suss out what’s up, who did what… and why.
Melodramatic it may be – intentionally and otherwise – but The Illusionist is neat trick. Blessed with a fantastically good score from Philip Glass, the film exudes an eeriness suited to its subject. And director Neil Burger cleverly adopts a flickery, turn-of-the-century cinematography that evokes the first days of cinema – when moving images began to weave their own illusions.
But it’s the superior casting that makes this film such fun. Edward Norton’s Eisenheim is hypnotic: he even learned the tricks he performs. Jessica Biel is feisty and fulsome as Sophie. Rufus Sewell is swaggeringly good as the Prince. Even supporting players, like Eddie Marsan as Norton’s acquisitive manager, are strong. But Paul Giamatti is utterly compelling as the Inspector: the story is seen through his eyes and his journey is ours.
And therein lies the key. When the ending comes, after a couple of enjoyable twists, the revelation has a Usual Suspects quality that makes you question everything that’s gone before.
With Prague standing in for Vienna, and with each scene taking place in real theatres and castles, The Illusionist has a beautiful authenticity: even the accents are well-researched. And all of the magic tricks are based on those that were actually performed in 1900 Europe, albeit with CGI touches here.
A period-romance cum murder-mystery cum intelligent-drama, The Illusionist is enjoyable on many levels. Hitting one or two duff notes, it’s not perfect. But like any good trick, it’s well worth seeing.