Norton lacks hypnotic appeal.
Just as video killed the radio stars, movies dealt a blow to magicians, leaving us to wonder where sleight of hand ended and camera tricks began. And now, a hundred or so years later, a movie is paying tribute to the good old days, when a man all alone on a stage, with nothing up his sleeve ' well, nothing much ' could mesmerize an audience, if not bring down an empire. The Illusionist, which Neil Burger wrote and directed based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, is set in fin-de-siÃcle Vienna, when the Hapsburg dynasty was in its let-them-eat-strudel phase. And Edward Norton, with his hair swept back and his eyes aflame and an overall Mephistophelian glow emanating from him at all times, plays the guy who told the monarchy where to stuff it.
He's Eisenheim, a cabinetmaker's son who, while still in training as a prestidigitator, had a forbidden romance with a young aristocrat, the lovely Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Fifteen years later, he's taking Vienna by storm with his magical powers, including visitations ' they're like holograms avant la lettre ' from beyond the grave. Spiritualism is in the air, casting a dark shadow over the Enlightenment, with its scientific rationalism and Darwinian evolution. And Eisenheim, in the movie's rather skewed logic, represents progress, the march of democracy. When Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the villain of the piece, shows up for a performance, Eisenheim borrows his sword, places it tip-down on the floor and dares anybody to remove it.
Sometimes, a sword is just a sword, as Sigmund Freud, another magician plying his trade in fin-de-siÃcle Vienna, might have said. But having to wait until Eisenheim gives him permission to play the King Arthur role sends the prince into a frenzy. And it doesn't help that his fiancÃe, sent by the Hungarians to shore up the Austro-Hungarian alliance, is one Sophie von Teschen. Its allegorical underpinnings aside, The Illusionist is a love triangle meant to stir our passions, not to mention our loins. But Burger doesn't quite get the job done. Norton, so effective in the right role, is in the wrong role; he lacks the hypnotic appeal that was the spiritualist's stock in trade. Biel, though gorgeous, is weak as well. And what's with those accents?
Paul Giamatti, as the police inspector torn between his duty to the prince and his admiration for Eisenheim's abilities, obviously showed up ready to play, but even he seems hampered by the movie's hermetically sealed atmosphere, the sense that it's all taking place inside a cardboard box. The cinematographer, Dick Pope, has come up with some lovely images, although they're a little too steeped in sepia. The effect is like looking at old, old photographs or a very early silent movie, complete with irises between scenes. It's certainly a distinctive look, but it also distances us from the action, makes it harder for us to suspend our disbelief. And if we're unable to suspend our disbelief, we're unable to transport ourselves to a time and place where, it seems, everybody was quite capable of suspending theirs.