This elegant fable of art, love and politics is set in Vienna circa 1900, all thoughts of Freud being strictly intentional. The Illusionist curls around you like a smoke ring, which only enhances its mysterious allure. Writer-director Neil Burger, who stirred things up promisingly in 2002’s Interview With the Assassin, shows a magician’s knack for indirection. It’s a talent that comes in handy in this tantalizing film adaptation of the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist, by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser.
Edward Norton is at his best here, chalking up another boundary-stretching performance this year in the wake of the unfairly overlooked Down in the Valley. Norton plays Eisenheim, a master illusionist whose powers onstage become a menace to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, whose glower qualifies as a weapon). In the past, Leopold had come between Eisenheim and the woman he worships, Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel at her considerable loveliest). Now Leopold is about to announce his engagement to Sophie, and Eisenheim is threatening to bring the crown prince onstage and cause him to vanish.
All this attracts the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti with a polished smoothness and disquieting accent miles removed from the good- natured-slob roles that put him on the movie map. Remember what I said about indirection. In the form of a romantic tragedy that takes place when Sophie is apparently murdered, Burger is constructing a parable about the nature of power and its abuses. It’s up to the inspector, and the audience, to decide if Eisenheim is just an illusionist or a man in league with darker forces. It’s mesmerizing fun to be fooled.