a short take by Tony McRae

We’re in Vienna circa 1900A magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has taken the city by storm.  This man is unbelievable, to the point that audiences can’t be sure if his illusions are stunning tricks or supernatural events.  We—21st century moviegoers—wonder the same thing.

He’s so good, in fact, that Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), accompanied by his fiancée, the aristocrat Sophie (Jessica Biel), attends one of Eisenheim’s performances.  It turns out that Sophie and Eisenheim were childhood friends, close friends, though he is a commoner, she an aristocrat.  Needless to say, the Prince and the magician soon are on a collision course with the beautiful Sophie caught in the middle. 

Prince Leopold enlists Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to get the dirt on Eisenheim and take him down.  That’s the plot.  A villainous Prince, a commoner magician both wanting the same woman.  Sound corny but it works beautifully.

The prime reasons for this, aside from the wonderfully atmospheric recreation of 1900 Austria and Philip Glass’s eerie score, are the performances, especially those of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti.  Their scenes together crackle with wit and subtleties.   Both are Oscar-worthy, especially Giamatti’s.  There’s a scene in the film’s last sequence in which Chief Inspector Uhl has arrived at the railway station.  Here he begins to piece the story of Eisenheim and Sophia together, to work out all the improbabilities, all the twists that only a master illusionist is capable of.  It’s a tour de force of acting, because Giamatti doesn’t say one word. 

One critic recently compared Paul Giamatti to the great actor Claude Rains—you know, the French policeman in “ Casablanca .”  This is right on.  Rains, who in my opinion had the most beautiful male voice in the movies, was primarily a character actor, but he did occasional leading man roles.  Giamatti is now in that same precarious situation.  He’s not leading-man handsome, but his enormous talent should overcome this.  We can only hope.

Don’t wait for the DVD.  You should see this on the big screen. 

I might add that the AP review that appeared in Friday’s Fargo Forum was clearly about a different movie.  The AP reviewer saw emotionless characters; I saw a lush and romantic story. 

Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and mild violence.