A review of “The Illusionist” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for bloodshed and adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

 

 

Edward Norton is the most intriguing actor of his generation, exuding a fierce intelligence and blazing intensity that translates into good theater even when the material suffers by comparison. “The Illusionist” is just what the doctor ordered.

Norton mesmerizes as Austrian magician Eisenheim, who has turn-of-the-century Vienna in his thrall with his astounding sleight-of-hand and magical manipulations, ostensibly bending the laws of nature to his will.

Not everyone has jumped aboard the Eisenheim bandwagon. The powerful and pragmatic Crown Prince Leopold (stereotypically cast Rufus Sewell) is seeking to debunk Eisenheim’s skill because of petty jealousy and a blossoming love triangle that involves beautiful affianced Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel).

Leopold puts dogged Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) in Eisenheim’s face, determined to debunk his ethereal act and thwart his efforts to stand in the way of Leopold’s devious plans for the monarchy.

“Illusionist” has a lovely, old world feel that’s nicely in keeping with its tasty combination of romance, politics and sorcery. Norton maintains a charming inscrutability, walking a tightrope of reality and fantasy with quick-witted finesse.

The spiteful battle of wills between prince and conjurer is pleasingly subtle but jarringly offset by the patent element of tawdry bodice-ripper when the love scenes come into play. It’s here that “Illusionist” loses its vigor, the gyroscope of its dark mystery turning unwieldy and off-balance. Neat climactic twist puts things back on course.

This is Norton’s show -- adapting to the mannered grace of the early 1900s with cool elegance. Sewell has played the evil tough one time too many – someone get this guy a romantic comedy! Giamatti’s enduring talent is evident and Biel is – much to my surprise -- more than just a pretty face.

A stylishly crafted illusion that’s definitely worth a look.