Edward Norton stars as the great Eisenheim, an illusionist whose acclaim reaches the court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is sufficiently amused to invite him to perform at the castle, but becomes resentful when the entertainer catches the eye of the Prince's betrothed, Duchess Sophie van Taschen (Jessica Biel). Determined to expose the magician's tricks, the Prince only ends up further humiliated.
It turns out there is history between Sophie and Eisenheim. They were childhood sweethearts separated by the social gulf between them. Now he wants to reclaim his beloved. But when Sophie tells the Prince he is furious, and a tragedy ensues.
Written and directed by Neil Burger, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist is handsomely produced and mildly diverting, but it's surprising that some people prefer it to Christopher Nolan's much more sophisticated narrative. Perhaps it's the melodrama that appeals: a love story between a poor boy and a lovely aristocrat with a scheming evil prince between them, it's practically an old fashioned fairytale.
The initial conflict holds plenty of promise (with Sewell practically frothing at the mouth as he's outwitted by a common entertainer), but the mystery hinges entirely on a plot twist that will strike some viewers as blatantly obvious nearly an hour before the end. Adding insult to injury, and unlike the scrupulously fair Prestige, the magic show here is a cheat, a display of unscrupulous sleight of hand on the part of director Neil Burger, not Eisenheim.
Aside from Sewell, the outstanding performance comes from Paul Giamatti as the detective trying to tread a middle way between serving a tyrant and making the magician disappear. Jessica Biel acts like she's never seen a corset before (which is probably the case), and while Norton musters a certain amount of flourish, his flat, monotonous voice is more likely to put you to sleep than cast a spell (a semi-German accent doesn't help).
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