Period drama about a mysterious magician in love with the wife of a fiery monarch. The young Eisenheim (Norton) is an Austrian boy of meagre means, son of a cabinetmaker but a lad with a keen mind. He's in love with Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel) - the girl next door - who is of high breeding. Their plans to run away to China so Eisenheim can there learn the secrets of great magic are scuppered by Sophie's parents who'd as soon put a stop to the economic mis-match. In self-imposed exile, Eisenheim travels the world learning the finest, most mystical tricks, becoming a sorcerer of no little renown. Upon his return to Vienna, he finds Sophie unhappily engaged to the vile Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) who happens to be a great sceptic of the world of magic. He assigns his Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to monitor Eisenheim and out him for a fake. The Count and Eisenheim are soon at odds and, when his dear Sophie is murdered, Eisenheim, apparently racked with grief, designs a new illusion in which she appears onstage bearing finger-pointing ill portent for the Count. Eisenheim is naturally shut down and driven out of Vienna immediately. Uhl begins to observe Eisenheim's movements more closely and to even have doubts about whether Sophie is actually dead.
offers welcome proof that "arthouse" quality needn't be limited to the arthouses. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, this stately, elegant period film benefited from a crossover release in mainstream cinemas, and showed considerable box-office staying power--granted, teenage mallrats and lusty males may have been drawn to the allure of Seventh Heaven
alumna Jessica Biel, who rises to the occasion with a fine performance. But there's equal appeal in the casting of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, who bring their formidable talents to bear on the intriguing tale of a celebrated magician named Eisenheim (Norton) whose stage performance offends the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a vindictive lout who aims to marry Duchess Sophie (Biel), Eisenheim's childhood friend and now, 15 years later, his would-be lover. This romantic rivalry and Eisenheim's increasingly enigmatic craft of illusion are investigated by Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), who's under Leopold's command and is therefore not to be trusted as Eisenheim and Sophie draw closer to their inevitable reunion. Cleverly adapted by director Neil Burger from Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist,"
and boasting exquisite production values and a fine score by Philip Glass, The Illusionist
is the kind of class act that fully deserved its unusually wide and appreciative audience. --Jeff Shannon