An artistic, beautiful-looking film with three top-shelf actors trading paint and intriguing subject matter that will be unfamiliar to most Americans, Neil Burger's The Illusionist falls short of greatness due to several self-inflicted mistakes. First, the good stuff. The very early 20th century in central Europe is not a popular setting for moderate-budget films with Hollywood stars; filmmakers working in that slice of history like to zoom in on the wars (where stuff was getting blown up) or the colonies (where cultures were coming into conflict). The European peasantry, meanwhile, was still coming out of an intellectual and cultural snooze that stretched back to the Dark Ages. Two extremely unpleasant wars and the collapse of what remained of Europe's empires were still standing between the working classes and modernity.
So The Illusionist does a really good job of evoking an era that never really had an equivalent in the United States. Its two prime movers are parallel representatives of dying belief systems: Edward Norton as Eisenheim, the magician, and Rufus Sewell as Leopold, the nobleman. Faith in the nobility's divinely descended right to power and the fantastic and mystical in general were on the wane. In a decade the Great War would pretty much wipe both out. Ultimately both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film are millennials, aware of the cultural shift taking place around them but disposed by their different backgrounds to react to it differently.
Leopold, who's already close to ultimate power, manipulates the situation to try and perpetuate the old ways. He schemes to steal the throne and sends policeman Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to find a pretext to put Eisenheim away when he becomes an inconvenience. Hypocritical royals are hardly new to either history or the cinema, but in this particular story the villain is somewhat more than stock. Leopold's awareness of the disconnect between the reality of his title and the rank-and-file public's impression of what that title implies about his behavior allows him to scheme with impunity. Likewise, as Eisenheim Norton plays a man slightly ahead of his time who first comes into conflict with the powers that be and ultimately is able to use his edge to exit stage to a happy ending.
It's quite with purpose that Eisenheim describes himself as an illusionist and not a magician or a conjurer. He states right up front to his audiences that nothing he is doing is magical (like Stan Marsh in the John Edward "South Park" episode) but they insist on believing. Neither Leopold nor Eisenheim can stem nor speed the pace of change. Their early awareness puts them in a position where they can set themselves up to benefit, as Norton's character does, or to fall as does the Crown Prince. The awakening of the general populace takes the combined efforts of generations' worth of such paragons.
So there are some really interesting, currently relevant themes at work in The Illusionist. (HBO's "Carnivàle" had basically the same premise moved to a rural American setting, with one major difference -- in that show's world magic is most definitely real, only dying out, unlike in The Illusionist where what's dying out is superstition.) A lot of the film as a finished product falls short of its intellectual ideal, however. It's nice to see Norton playing a guy who holds things close to the vest while the buttoned-down Giamatti frets and hand-wrings. But... Inspector Uhl is the third-most important character in the movie, maybe the fourth-most, and dedicating so much of its running time to the details of his investigation undercuts the prince character, who's Eisenheim's real opposite number. As a matter of fact, the illusionist himself never really snaps into form as a human character, remaining the aloof mystic that the public sees. Thanks to the reliable Giamatti we get a lot of insight into the inspector, but that's totally not the point of movie.
I always thought Rufus Sewell was going to be a big star after Dark City. Never happened. I have been seeing a lot more of him lately, and that's welcome; as he's gotten a little older the range of roles he can play convincingly has broadened. He was very good in a supporting part as a rake in The Holiday (one of the very best mainstream romantic comedies of the last few years, if you've not seen it) and brought an unexpected sensual quality to his role as Alexander Hamilton alongside Giamatti in HBO's killer "John Adams" miniseries. So you've got three heavyweight modern actors. Who plays the ingenue? Why, Summer Catch's Jessica Biel, of course! Biel is unbelievably bad in The Illusionist. As soon as it becomes clear she can't hack the accent Burger just tries to keep her silent as much as possible, but Biel can't even move correctly. She carries herself in exactly the wrong way, like a field hockey player on figure skates. The one scene she appears in that doesn't make you want to gouge your eyes out is the one where she's dead, bloody, and lashed to a horse. Frankly Jessica Biel should quit acting, because she found her calling years ago. That calling is to appear topless... in still photos.