There's something in Paul Giamatti
that was just made for the 19th century. With those slightly bulbous but penetrating eyes and stolid weariness, one can imagine him looking out of an old daguerreotype with hat in hand, an emblem of a less superficial age. So it's nice to see Giamatti (so often made to play the whiny comic relief) cast in the otherwise dismissible film The Illusionist as a gruff policeman in fin de siècle Vienna, dropping his voice into a lower register than usual and assuming an impressive stature; honorable but shaded with a tiny bit of incipient corruption. If only everything else in the film worked this well.
Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, a Pulitzer winner given to tidy exposition and nostalgic settings, The Illusionist concerns a stage magician who was separated from the love of his love due to his peasant roots and her aristocratic family, only to meet her years later on stage, when she is betrothed to a villainous crown prince. The magician, Eisenheim, is played stiffly by Edward Norton
, without a shred of humor or self-awareness. Somewhat in keeping with his performance is that by Jessica Biel
as his beloved, Sophie von Teschen -- whose beauty helps brighten these lamp-lit rooms, but who is never close to believable as a Viennese noblewoman. Rather more in keeping with the spirit of the rather melodramatic story is Rufus Sewell, as the evil Crown Prince Leopold, who swans through the film with cigarette holder perched lightly in one hand, his face a deliciously, maliciously bored mask. Article continues below
Sewell and Giamatti are about the only things livening up the attempt by director/writer Neil Burger
(Interview with the Assassin) to spread Millhauser's brief fiction over the length of a feature. A lengthy prelude following Eisenheim and Sophie's young love is played out much longer than necessary, while Eisenheim's performances are padded beyond any possible audience interest. Every now and again, for the sake of drama, Leopold snarls at Giamatti's Chief Inspector Uhl to shut down this Eisenheim, who in his performances has gone out of his way to gall the prince, partially as a way of wooing Sophie. Everything in the film is handsomely mounted, with its sepia-tinted cinematography and unusually dramatic, strings-laden score by Philip Glass, but by the time it comes to the over-plotted and un-shocking bag-of-tricks conclusion, Burger's fussy look has started to feel more confining than beautiful.
For a time, The Illusionist is indeed able to conjure up some magic, the illusion of being an original and captivating film. Eisenheim has a nice scene when, at the start of a performance, the curtains draw back and he walks out, pulling his gloves off and abruptly throwing them into the audience, only to have them turn into black birds and flutter away. And Giamatti can at least be happy to have acquitted himself well in a film that, if anyone sees it, will hopefully result in him being offered fewer roles as the loveable loser. But as such things go, once The Illusionist's great reveal is uncovered, what comes then is not awe and astonishment so much as disappointment, tinged with boredom.