The Illusionist (Yari Film Group Releasing) is almost— almost—too good to be true. It's an exquisitely crafted period picture that keeps promising more and more as it goes along—smarter ideas, richer themes, spookier plot twists—and keeps delivering on every promise, right up until the rug-pulling and overly hasty final sequence.
The movie opens in a theater in 19th-century Vienna, where Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) captivates the audience with his apparently unearthly ability to manipulate the laws of nature. He plants an orange seed, and the tree grows up before our eyes. He produces a handkerchief, and two butterflies come to bear it away. The only skeptical eye in the crowd belongs to Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who's been charged by the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to unmask Eisenheim's secrets. What's the prince got against Eisenheim? Well, it seems that his betrothed, a noblewoman named Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), had a childhood romance with the magician, and a recent encounter between the two may have rekindled their love.
In a flashback that looks for all the world like an early autochrome photograph, we revisit the passionate affair of Eisenheim and Sophie's youth (and whatever casting agent was assigned to find a child actor resembling Edward Norton really outdid herself with the remarkable Aaron Johnson). Because of their difference in social class, the two are separated forcibly by their families, and Sophie's last plea to the already magic-obsessed boy—"Make us disappear!"—becomes Eisenheim's motivating obsession. When he appears in Vienna 15 years later, his conjuring skill has become such that his stage audiences (like us, his movie audience) see him more as a supernatural being than a master trickster. In fact, Eisenheim soon develops a cult following that threatens the stability of the empire. But Uhl, an amateur magician himself, is sure that Eisenheim's illusions all have an explanation—that is, until the illusionist's stage show begins to breach the boundary between life and death itself.
Based on a story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist is cerebral enough to please art-house audiences, while offering the same puzzle-solving satisfaction as an old Sherlock Holmes mystery. Most of Eisenheim's illusions were filmed without special effects—Norton trained with the magician and magic historian Ricky Jay—and they dazzle and confound in equal measure. Norton's intensity, which has come off as screen-hogging hamminess in worse-written roles, meshes perfectly with the character of Eisenheim, a man capable of everything except bringing back the happiness of the past.
Paul Giamatti, who's hit the trifecta this summer with great performances in Lady in the Water, The Ant Bully, and now here, plays against type as a suave and corrupt bureaucrat. Inspector Uhl is torn between his loyalty to the crown prince (and the goodies the prince will no doubt cast his way when he assumes the crown) and his growing sympathy for the lovesick Eisenheim. Giamatti invents a new voice for the part, a faintly Teutonic baritone that's a complete departure from his customary nasal stammer. This voice comes in handy, as Uhl's voice-over narration ties up the considerable tangle of story threads.
Jessica Biel (aka "that chick from 7th Heaven with the giant teeth") would hardly seem like the first choice to play the remote and aristocratic Sophie, and the press notes' breathless references to her "whirlwind" audition process seem to hint that she may have been a last-minute replacement for someone else. But Biel has grown into those plus-size choppers, looks smashing in period costume, and feels like a fresher choice for the role than a more obvious Keira Knightley/Helena Bonham Carter type. She may not be the discovery of the movie, but she more than holds up her end. You can believe that the likes of Edward Norton would want to transcend space and time for her sake.
The Illusionist also has considerable intellectual ambitions, though it tucks them discreetly up its sleeve. The film shows the competing strains of spiritualism and scientific rationalism that dominated late-19th-century thought, while the figure of the prince is an odd mix of modern ideas and imperial aspirations: He wants to overthrow his dictatorial father so he can rule more democratically. The Prague locations handily stand in for turn-of-the-century Vienna, and the austerely lovely cinematography and production design are works of trompe-l'oeil magic in themselves. Even The Illusionist's disappointingly clunky final minutes can't dissipate its mood of elegiac beauty.
The director, Neil Burger, has only one other feature to his name so far: the mock documentary Interview With the Assassin, which purported to introduce us to the second shooter in the Kennedy assassination. Both films share a concern with perception and deception, a sense that any mystery worth exploring is, in the end, impenetrable. I wonder what Burger will pull out of his hat next time.