The Illusionist (PG-13), directed by Neil Burger, opens Friday, September 1, at Pittsford, Regal Henrietta 18, and Tinseltown.
In a telling moment in The Illusionist, a police technician operates a crude, noisy movie projector --- it takes place in the late 19th century --- in an attempt to show how the title character performs one of his most astonishing tricks. The attempt fails, but the scene suggests the important relationship between the art of magic and the magic of art, and of course, the wonders of the cinema, that most magical and illusionary artform of all. The filmmaker, like the magician, employs misdirection, deception, and fakery to produce an utterly fantastic but wholly convincing effect of reality, emotion, and immediacy, despite the fact that even the purported movement of the motion picture is itself a trick, an illusion.
Narrated in something like an official report by the Viennese Chief Inspector of Police Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to Crown Prince Leopold of Austria (Rufus Sewell), the movie shows the life and work of a stage magician known as Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton). The inspector initially weaves a fantastic tale, in which as a young boy, Eisenheim, the son of skilled cabinetmaker, encountered a wizard whose tricks inspired him to follow a career in magic. After traveling through Europe and Asia learning his craft, the performer arrives in Vienna to amaze the citizens, among them Uhl, a dabbler in sleight of hand himself.
In addition to wealth and fame, Eisenheim finds his childhood sweetheart, Sophie (Jessica Biel), now a duchess betrothed to Leopold, and the two lovers resume their affair. The jealous and conniving Leopold, who believes a marriage to Sophie will cement the loyalty of Hungary in his plan to overthrow his father the Emperor, orders Uhl to conduct a close surveillance of the lovers. When Eisenheim's tricks humiliate Leopold at a private performance in the royal palace, the prince commands the closing of the theater, forcing the magician to improvise an ingenious response to his persecution and to invent ever more remarkable illusions, including the apparent resurrection of the spirits of the dead.
The summoning of the spirits, the mystery the police try to solve with the movie projector, lands Eisenheim in even deeper trouble with the prince, who wants him charged with blasphemy and treason. Inspector Uhl, the sympathetic observer caught between the power of the prince and his admiration for the magician, must arrest him. To escape punishment, Eisenheim announces to his angry supporters, to whom he seems an almost godlike being, that his acts are only tricks, performed with mechanisms and mirrors.
The prince's ambitions and his jealous rage incite him to an act of violence, a murder that threatens to topple the empire itself. Eisenheim in effect solves the case on stage by summoning the spirit of the victim so that his audience can determine the truth for themselves. In his own investigation, Inspector Uhl discovers an even deeper truth, the solution to some of the mysteries of the magician's act and life, the method and purpose of his illusions, the real meaning of his performance.
Part costume drama, part love story, part mystery, The Illusionist weaves together a most complicated and occasionally implausible assortment of threads of plot and character, ending with a clever if somewhat fanciful conclusion. If the detective reaches his final solution to all the puzzles in an extremely rapid montage of visual recapitulation, he nevertheless affirms the significance of the magician's art. The film itself suggests not only the beauty and potency of illusion but also the illusory nature of reality, so that the illusionist triumphs over the empty construct of ambition and power, and his tricks prevail over the grand, tragicomic illusion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Illusionist effectively blends the magic of its subject and method, not only through the wonders of the cinema but also through the remarkable acting of its cast. Although Rufus Sewell simply chews up a considerable amount of his empire, both Giamatti and Norton, in contrast, behave with genuine intelligence and enormous restraint, creating some terrific effects with the most commonplace and understated inflections and gestures. The solidity of their performances, paradoxically, supports the magic of the picture's effects --- whatever their considerable success in the past, neither man has ever done better work, or appeared in a more unusual movie.