Illusionist, The: Neil Berger’s Romantic Thriller Starring Edward Norton

The gifted actor Edward Norton makes risky choices, as was evident in the original but flawed modern Western, “Down in the Valley,” which he also exec-produced.
And now comes “The Illusionist,” a bizarre romantic thriller of intrigue, magic, and murder, set in the turn-of-the-century Vienna. Norton’s next project, a remake of Maugham’s “Painted Veil” (a Christmas release) also sounds problematic.

“The Illusionist” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, in January, and is now getting theatrical release. Of all of Norton’s projects this year, it’s the most accessible and commercial.

However, with all due respect to Norton’s audacious choice of roles and considerble talent, it’s fair to ask how well his idiosyncratic vehicles serve his talent, and how good they are as movies.

Nicely crafted, “The Illusionist” is the second feature from writer-director Neil Burger, who made good impression with his feature debut, “Interview With The Assassin,” in 2002.  Burger’s script is adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.”

Lush Viennese setting, gorgeous period costumes, and a striking Philip Glass score can only partially compensate for this strange love triangle story, set in the world of magic. The yarn centers on a stage magician whose extraordinary powers threaten to subvert the power structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Like most movies about magic, unless they’re done as broad comedy a la Woody Allen, “The Illusionist” asks the viewers to suspend too much disbelief. Some of the onscreen tricks could never have been executed before a live audience. But for a while, you are willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of a doubt.

The saga begins with a brief prologue that shows the celebrated illusionist Eisenheim (Norton) arrested by Vienna’s police before an outraged audience. The Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) inquires if there isn’t some charge that can be pinned on him.

A flashback illustrates the first, adolescent love between Eisenheim and the upper-class Sophie. When he realizes that their relationship is forbidden, the young, frustrated Eisenheim leaves Austria.

Cut to 15 years later and to Eisenheim as a reputable magician, responsible for a show that’s attended regularly by Vienna’s elite. Among the spectators is the Crown Prince and his fiancee, who turns out to be the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (now played by Jessica Biel). When Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience who is not afraid of death, Sophie goes on stage. Asked by the Prince what trick he plans to perform at a command performance, Eisenheim says arrogantly and nonchalantly, “I’ll make you disappear.” Eisenheim’s stunts insult Leopold, who orders to shut down his show.

Enter Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a poor-born opportunist with an interest in conjuring and showmanship. Owing his rise to Prince Leopold, Uhl is caught between the two rivals. Intrigued by Eisenheim, Uhl alerts the magician regarding his dangerous games. However, nothing can prevent Eisenheim from reuniting with Sophie, who, after a night together, informs him that Leopold intends to announce their engagement. Eisenheim convinces Sophie to call it off, but Leopold can’t take the rejection.

Meanwhile, Eisenheim evolves into an extraordinary magician who can make “Ghosts” of real people appear onstage. Soon, he’s suspected of fomenting a “spiritual republic,” and Leopold assumes a disguise to attend his performance. The inevitable conflict between the two men throws Uhl into a moral crisis that leads to an incredible (in both senses of the term) resolution, one that negates the little credibility the yarn has in its early chapters.

Problem is, Eisneheim remains a detached, enigmatic character up to the end, burdened with motivations and actions that are often senseless, even if they are driven by a lost love from which he had never recovered. I have not read the short story (or script, for that matter). Nonetheless, as interpreted by Norton, Eisenheim doesn’t elicit sufficient sympathy to generate emotional interest in him-or in the movie–unless you love shows about magic.

Fastidiously groomed, Giamatti may be too theatrical for the screen, but he comes across better than Norton, though he, too, seems uncomfortable in his role. The weakest turn is rendered by Jessica Biel, who’s possibly miscast; she is not stunning or alluring enough to form the center of the romantic triangle and royal intrigues.

Blend of accents (some American, some British, some pseudo-Austrian or Cetral European) results in an incoherent production, though the fault might be in Burger’s misdirection of his ensemble.

As noted, the production benefits greatly from the sumptuous locations in Prague, standing in for Vienna, vividly shot by ace cinematographer Dick Pope. Along with Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design and Ngila Dickson’s costumes, Pope’s imagery makes for visually pleasurable film.

But is it enough to detract attention from a movie that’s at once old-fashioned and bizarre A story about the battle of wits between an enigmatic magician and a decadent Austrian Prince is not the most exciting or relevant theme in today’s zeitgeist. I think More could have made of the protagonists’ social origins, the fact, for example, that Eisenheim is the son of a cabinetmaker, who rises to the top.

The yarn’s murder subplot is even less convincing than the romantic one. At the end of the movie, you may ask yourself whether it was worth suspending so much disbelief for a trip to old Vienna, a locale that for some reason has not been particularly inspirational for American indie directors.

It may be too harsh to suggest that Burger is following in the footsteps of Soderbergh’s “Kafka,” a movie that also depends too much on location and mood, though “The Illusionist” is certainly not the sophomore jinx that “Kafka” was.

It’s probably a coincidence, but it will be interesting to compare “The Illusionist” with the “other” magic movie this season, Warner’s “The Prestige,” directed by Christopher Nolan.