“It was the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation,” writes Steven Millhauser in “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the short story on which this movie is based. Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is an illusionist performing in turn-of-the-century Vienna. He becomes the sensation of Venice, and the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) attends one of the shows. The crown prince’s soon-to-be-fiance, the duchess Sophie (Jessica Biehl) turns out to be Eisenheim’s long lost childhood love. They renew not only their friendship but love. As Eisenheim continues to perform magic and upstage the crown prince, who must find a logical answer to every illusion, the prince determines to run Eisenheim out of town. Paul Giamatti plays Chief Inspector Uhl who gets caught between the corrupt prince and Eisenheim, who is determined not to bow before the prince, much less run from him. The scenes between Norton and Giamatti are very subtle and nuanced as are the performances by both men. Giamatti is the only narrator, and we are drawn into the story through his eyes as he balances his allegiance to the crown prince while remaining sympathetic to Eisenheim.
Inspector Uhl attends every performance Eisenheim has performed, and the illusions make Uhl and us question if they are the result of supernatural works, or if they are really illusions. As the power struggle between Eisenheim and the crown prince grows so do the stakes and the illusions. Amongst the smoke and mirrors that Eisenheim sets up we, like Uhl, must try to figure out what is real and what is not. At the climax Giamatti performs an incredible scene of pantomime, as we watch him retrace his own narration through flashbacks and come to a different conclusion. Again we are left to determine which version of the story is real and which is the illusion. The Philip Glass score is a beautiful composition that reinforces every scene in the movieâ€”from the subtle interplays between Norton and Giamatti to the power plays and through to the mind-bending climax. At the end we are left to decide what we will believe and not believe, and what we will interpret as “real,” and what we will see as “illusion.” PG-13, 110.