In turn of the century Vienna, a magician enraptures audiences with his marvelous illusions. Orange trees grow on command. The laws of physics are temporarily suspended. Death visits a maiden, although she lives to tell the tale.
Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) also angers a prince, one Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who sees in the magician's work not an opportunity for amazement, but an annoying riddle to be solved. In attempting to show up the showman, the temperamental prince is instead made the butt of an elaborate, mythical joke. Even worse, Eisenheim steals the prince's girl, Sophie (Jessica Biel), although it might be said that she had been Eisenheim's girl all along. Sophie was Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart. They were torn apart by circumstances and socio-economic realities --he was the son of a poor carpenter, she was a duchess -- then brought back together by a chance encounter. (Although it's possible, within the elusive, illusion-packed structure of The Illusionist that there are no chance encounters.)
What follows from the prince's cuckolding is a cat and mouse game between Eisenheim and police inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an amateur magician who admires Eisenheim but works for the prince. There is socio-political intrigue involving marital alliances and plots to overthrown the empire, there's a little romance, a little murder mystery. Eisenheim becomes rock star famous, and manages to foment revolutionary tendencies among Viennese spiritualists with his apparent ability to conjure the dead. For the "it's all about me" prince, Eisenheim's magic show becomes a personal and political threat.
Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger, is an entrancingly elaborate cinematic sleight of hand. It's also a thoughtful exploration of the nature of illusion, and the power of magic and the mind, set in a time and place -- Freud's Vienna -- where the mind was on everybody's mind. Depending on what you believe, and your tendency to wish for happy endings, the movie's finale may give away too much, or nothing at all -- the revelations come to Uhl, who may or may not be clever enough to have figured out what really happened.
What really happened remains the central mystery in this teasing, playful movie. So much of the story depends on the difference between seeing and believing, between what's objectively real and what's subjectively real -- both for the audiences in the film, and for audiences of the film. Are Eisenheim's parlor tricks real? Does he have the power to manipulate space and time, or just to manipulate the minds of his audience? (Either one would be a pretty neat trick.) These are, of course, key questions about the power of the cinema and its elaborate illusions as well, and that synthesis of onscreen/offscreen ideas is not lost on the filmmakers, who employ low-tech stagecraft and effects (with the technical guidance of the venerable magician and magic historian Ricky Jay) to recreate the film's historically accurate magic tricks. Eisenheim's elaborate ruses go beyond the visual, incorporating timely ideas and jokes, and timeless mythology and fairy tales. They go beyond the stage as well, and the puzzle that dogs the dogged Inspector Uhl is whether anything having to do with Eisenheim is not an illusion.
There is an interesting and illuminating interplay between Norton and Giamatti in The Illusionist. Both are really good, really interesting actors, with very different styles that turn out to be quite complementary here. Giamatti's openness is revealing and engaging, making him an ideal sort of narrator in The Illusionist. He's rational, a thoughtful puzzle-solver, and a man who appreciates a good mystery. These might not be ideal qualities for investigating someone like Eisenheim. Norton, on the other hand, tends to be elusive and closed, with a face that reveals virtually nothing (or reveals only falsehoods), making the darkly secretive trickster Eisenheim an excellent counterpoint to Uhl. Together they embody the tensions, so much in play during the cultural, social and technological upheavals of turn of the century Europe, and so much at the heart of The Illusionist, between science and superstition, fact and fiction, the real and the ideal, the rational and the romantic.