Edward Norton, who stars, elegantly, as the title conjurer in The Illusionist, is known for the intelligence and intensity he brings to his roles. Norton’s vibe is highly analytical, and so penetrating that he can burn a hole through a picture if not properly handled or supported by strong material (it happened most recently in Down in the Valley). And in that regard, screenwriter-director Neil Burger capitalizes on Norton’s strengths quite well.
Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist casts Norton as Eisenheim, a lovelorn Viennese stage magician, circa 1900, who confounds Paul Giamatti as a scam-sniffing Viennese police chief with his apparent ability to manipulate time and space while delighting audiences. Well, most audiences: Add Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), proud of his own cold logic, to the small list of those who feel threatened rather than impressed, and thus intent on exposing Eisenheim’s scams. What’s real? What’s illusion? What’s the power of love, the destructiveness of obsession? The Illusionist looks rigorously styled and measured, and every one of Norton’s postures feels chosen. Yet the interesting actor has chosen so thoughtfully that we’re riveted. And isn’t that a mark of great acting?