Flanked by policemen, Eisenheim the magician (Edward Norton) is frogmarched from the stage, leaving his rapt Austrian audience in a Viennese whirl. It's the beginning of The Illusionist, but also the end, as this textured period mystery unravels in flashback. Eisenheim is Vienna's biggest star, a master conjuror whose tricks have outraged the crown prince (Rufus Sewell). But what's it all about? A girl, of course.
It's Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the prince's lackey and Eisenheim's arresting officer, who tells the magician's life story. The son of a humble carpenter, the young magician caused a scandal by falling in puppy love with the local royalty, Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Yes, his dad was in cabinets and her dad was in the Cabinet - it could never be. So for 15 years Eisenheim travels the world, perfecting his art and forgetting the girl. Until he arrives in Vienna and the crown prince volunteers his beautiful fiancée (you guessed it) to join the smouldering sorcerer on stage. A twisting intrigue unravels as Eisenheim plots to get the girl and win one for the working classes.
Norton's trademark intensity is perfectly suited to the enigmatic character of Eisenheim. He defies understanding as much as his impressive tricks. And as befits the subject, The Illusionist looks wonderful. Director Neil Burger captures every scene in an evocative daguerreotype tone. Not everyone will be taken in by the plot's final twist, but even if you guess how Eisenheim does it, you'll be won over by his showmanship.
The Illusionist is released in UK cinemas on Friday 2nd March 2007.