Gifted magicians mystify without killing an audience's belief that it can figure out their tricks. They appeal, in other words, less to our desire to be entertained or convinced of the supernatural than to our need to think that we can ultimately understand life's mysteries. Eisenheim, the main character of The Illusionist (PG-13 for brief, blurry fornication), is one such magician.
Set in Vienna at the cusp of the 20th century, when truth was being sharply if erroneously divided into rationalism and superstition, The Illusionist pits the skeptical Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) against Eisenheim (Edward Norton) in a contest that begins as a battle of wits and develops into a struggle over the Austrian government's future when Eisenheim and Leopold find themselves competing for the hand of Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel).
When Sophie chooses Eisenheim, she is murdered, but, as her death occurs off-screen in a secluded stable, no one, not even the audience, witnesses the crime. The resulting ambiguity hinders the efforts of Uhl to solve the case and underscores the is-it-real, is-it-sleight-of-hand ambiguity of Eisenheim's illusions, guaranteeing that viewers will debate much in the film the way readers of The Turn of the Screw debate the reality of its ghosts.
A comparison with Henry James' literary classic is not far-fetched. While it's premature to predict that The Illusionist will endure, Neil Burger's direction and Dick Pope's cinematography abjure the trendiness that often dates contemporary offerings. The pacing is deliberate without feeling slow, and the film's slightly grainy sepia tinge gives the detailed period settings and special effects a look resistant to obsolescence.
What may drain The Illusionist of staying power is the impenetrability of its central character. While it's logical for Eisenheim to be a tight-lipped man of mystery, his true nature remains obscure. The morally and intellectually struggling Uhl is much "rounder" and therefore the character with whom viewers will most likely identify. One suspects that such a shift in dramatic balance was not a trick the filmmakers were intending to turn.