Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is the illusionist, a brilliant magician wowing crowds in 19th-century Vienna. For all of the complex tricks he manages to pull off. Paul Giamatti plays Inspector Uhl, a guy who likes to figure out how everything works, including stage magic. He’s in the pocket of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a violent-tempered daddy’s boy with bloody aspirations. Torn between the Prince and the magician is Countess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) who knew Eisenheim when he was the young son of a cabinet maker, and when their opposing stations pulled them apart, he left to learn his trade. Now he’s the most popular in town, causing butterflies and orange trees to appear out of thin air. When Leopold comes to a performance, the Prince shoves Sophie onstage, presumably because he’s not man enough to do it himself. Eisenheim is taken aback. It might be because he’s aged far worse than his young love (she seems to have misplaced a decade somewhere), but it’s more likely because his heart is once more taken with her.
Writer/director Neil Burger brings us political intrigue, a love triangle, a cagey detective, ghosts, and other plot devices to make a clever tale of enchantment and deception. The main problem, though, is that we live in a digital age of technology with few surprises and little wonder. There has to be some sense that Eisenheim has actually pulled something off. From the get-go, Uhl would love to know Eisenheim’s secrets, but Burger keeps him–and us–at arm’s length. We never get to glimpse behind the curtain, not even to see that there isn’t anything there. Later, when Inspector Uhl begins to think Eisenheim may have supernatural powers, it comes out of left field. It’s not even been established that even aspires to such.
I enjoyed the film but passion was missing. “For a romance that has transcended time, where a woman is inspired to defy the future Emperor, the hearts of the participants don’t appear to be beating very hard. Yet the film is as elegant as it is dark.