Hollywood loves magicians. It is easy to see why: illusion is at the heart of the director’s art, the mirage on screen is a deception of light, sound and hollow sets in which actors pretend to be what they are not; and Hollywood is nothing if not self-regarding.
Neil Burger’s adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s beguiling short story, Eisenheim the Illusionist, continues that tradition, making sly nods at the medium through which he tells the story and the melodramas that feed it (notably the 1889 Mayerling Incident, which scandalised Imperial Austria).
Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a magician, who mesmerises the poor in fin de sicle Vienna with tricks that have them believing he is more demon than man. His popularity – and the superstition that follow him – irritates Crown Prince Leopold (played with arch malevolence by Rufus Sewell), a modern man of science, heir to the Austrian crown and cruel as an angry poacher. Leopold is determined to uncover the illusionist’s secrets and show science triumphant over primitive trickery.
But Leopold fails to realise that one secret underpins all others for Eisenheim. As a child he had a clandestine love affair with the beautiful aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel), who is now betrothed for political reasons to Leopold.
What follows is a standard wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story interweaved with a metaphysical meditation on the nature of illusion, the role of belief and the corruption of science, delivered with a sleight of hand with which Eisenheim himself would be proud.
The sleight of hand is largely due to the wonderful Paul Giametti (Sideways), who plays Leopold’s lugubrious henchman, Inspector Uhl, charged with running Eisenheim out of town. Uhl is beguiled by the magician. Something of an amateur conjuror, his admiration for the trickster matches his contempt for his dissolute boss.
The relationship between Uhl, Eisenheim and Leopold is the central joy of the film. The chemistry between Giametti and Norton is perfect. Norton plays with his adversaries, bantering with them through tricks one wishes were real, and which transform his enemies.
Burger’s clever script subtly conveys an underlying theme in Millhauser’s short story: the role of belief in society. While science in the form of Prince Leopold offers concrete solutions to everyday woes, what gives people hope is something that does not exist, something that transcends the mundane. As an image of the priesthood it is benign, though hardly flattering. Science and spirituality are needed to temper the other’s excess.
The only weak point is Sophie, who is played with whimpering stiffness by Jessica Biel (yet another Scarlett Johanssen look-a-like and equally untalented). Biel is too young and unsophisticated for the role. The idea that Eisenheim would travel the world to expunge his passion for her or that Leopold would see her as a political player with whom he could forge an alliance to overthrow his father is incredible. Still she looks pretty as the Viennese vistas – shot in gorgeous muted tones – the only dull point on a lush landscape.