This is a visually beautiful movie, even on a small screen. It tells a story of a man who has been consumed with the art of illusion since his childhood, and displays such extreme talent that many of the people who witness his tricks cannot believe that they are just illusions.
It's also a love story between this mysterious man, who calls himself Eisenheim, and Sophie, an Austrian Duchess. They meet as children and form a strong emotional bond, but are found out by Sophie's family and forced to part ways. So, he wanders the world, while she is effectively held prisoner, seemingly doomed to an unhappy marriage for the sake of producing an heir, and a dreadfully dull life for the sake of royal appearances.
When Eisenheim returns to Vienna, he is an instant sensation, with his remarkable illusions, the like of which no one has seen before. The illusions in this movie pay a special homage to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, regarded as the father of modern magic, and certainly the pioneer illusionist. Of course, modern cinematography turns some of Robert-Houdin's tricks into fantastic spectacles that could not really be achieved on stage. The orange tree trick, including the butterflies, and the Pepper's ghost illusion were tricks that Robert-Houdin used, and the movie's time period is probably very close to the mark--1860's.
Getting back to the movie:
When Eisenheim performs for the crown prince and the duchess Sophie, their bond is rekindled, and they must once again plan and scheme to be together. And so, as the audience is mesmerized by Eisenheim's conjuring on stage, a larger illusion is taking place in the background.
Not wanting to spoil the plot, I'll stop there. I will say that the intricate scheme Eisenheim and Sophie carry out does have its moral dilemmas.
In my opinion, all the acting in this film was superb. Even the youngsters who played the childhood counterparts of Eisenheim and Sophie were charming and good facial matches. One little criticism I do have, however, is that Edward Norton, as Eisenheim, looked too old for the part. He IS too old, but in a film where illusion is king, I would expect the make-up to be better. And no, there was no magical trick involving time warps--Eisenheim and Sophie should remain the same age. Jessica Biel, as Sophie, looked to be in her mid-twenties, which is more appropriate for the storyline.
Paul Giamatti, as Inspector Uhl, is a wonderfully complex character, a basically good man trying to survive cruel politics, while Rufus Sewell's scary and dastardly portrayal of Crown Prince Leopold is effective without being comic, a real challenge, since he wasn't given much to do, save being an evil jerk.
The film's technical advisors were Michael Weber and Ricky Jay. Since I enjoy repeating myself, I'll point out the fact that Ricky Jay is a captivating writer, among other things, who has turned the history of magic into a series of fascinating human interest stories. His latest offering is based on his collection of antique playbills, and is called Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusicon & Death to the Savage Unitarians. It's a book that doesn't need to be read cover-to-cover; it's fun to browse through. And yes, the bit about the savage Unitarians caught our eye!
Ricky Jay's sure to be at this year's Magic Collectors' Convention, where I just may insist we take this huge book to have autographed. But I digress.
The Illusionist website is pretty cool. I'd highly recommend renting this flick!
Correction: the Pepper's ghost illusion was NOT performed by Robert-Houdin, though the time period for this illusion is correct. And I neglected to mention that the sword trick in the movie was an adaptation of one of Robert-Houdin's tricks.