© 2006 Ray Wong
At the turn of the century, a magician named Eisenheim (Norton) creates a stir in Vienna. His tricks go beyond the garden variety and often leave his captivated audiences questioning if he possesses actual supernatural power. When he meets Lady Sophie (Biel), a woman about to be engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell), he realizes that she was the young girl he fell in love with almost fifteen years ago. He vows to win Sophie back from Leopold's iron grip.
Eisenheim's magic and arrogance rattles Leopold, who orders Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) to keep an eye on Eisenheim. Uhl himself is intrigued by Eisenheim's talent, and through his investigation, he also knows of Eisenheim's history with Sophie. Bound by his own political ambition, Uhl warns Eisenheim to stay away from Sophie and Leopold. A tragedy forces Uhl to question his loyalty to the prince and his obligation to justice.
Norton (Kingdom of Heaven) has always been an intense actor, and his intensity pays off in this film. Eisenheim is a man of mystery and passion, and Norton comes off believable while keeping a distance between himself and the audience. Giamatti (Lady in the Water) is equally impressive as the conflicted inspector (and narrator of the film). His low voice and body language keep the character real. Both actors have great command of the screen.
Biel (Elizabethtown) is radiant as Sophie, a woman stuck between love and social obligations. She has good chemistry with Norton and her portrayal has certain naiveté and sophistication at the same time. Sewell (Tristan & Isolde) excels in playing villains; here, his Leopold is intense, arrogant, and frightening at times. The rest of the cast is excellent in their minor, supportive roles.
Writer-director Burger (Interview with the Assassin) has created a romantic mystery with intrigue and suspense. As with any mystery, he's left enough clues that anyone with a sharp eye and an inquisitive mind would have guessed the plot midway through the film. If Burger's intention was to surprise the audience, he may have failed. I don't, however, think surprise is his intention, given how brief the final reveal is. It's as if he already knows the audience has figured it out, and is merely summarizing. What he has succeeded in doing is the execution of the film, how he slowly unfolds the mystery with intensity and intrigue. Like a true magician's work, we've come to expect to see and scrutinize the "trickery," but remained fascinated by the execution nonetheless. We've come to see how the wizard does it.
The plot unfolds logically, and the dialogue is appropriate and interesting. Burger also succeeds in creating a nostalgic and romantic mood for the piece. Using soft, diffused lighting and vibrant colors, and setting the film in old Europe with great details, he has created a film that is intriguing from the first frame to the last. The use of special effects, while giving the film a sophisticated look, can be somewhat distracting, giving a false impression of Eisenheim's true ability. Granted, it's a film about magic and mystery, and certain suspension of disbelief is in order. Perhaps Burger does want the film's audience to have the same reaction as Eisenheim's audiences do -- to question what we see. In that respect, Neil Burger is quite the illusionist himself.
Stars: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Director: Neil Burger
Writer: Neil Burger (based on Steven Millhauser's short story)
Distributor: Yari Film Group
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Running Time: 110 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.9 out of 10