This is an excellent gothic thriller based on the short story by Steven Millhauser, Eisenheim The Illusionist, set in late 19th century Vienna about the son of a young cabinetmaker who falls in love with a young Viennese aristocrat and is banned from seeing her as he is a basic commoner. As the legend goes about the young lad, he meets a travelling magician on the road who shows him the secrets of illusion, where he sets off to exotic lands to learn the mysteries of life. He returns to Vienna after his travels and opens a show in the great city to astonish not only Vienna's common public with his quasi supernatural illusions, but also Crown Prince Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Josef who then reigned over the Austrian Hungarian Empire.
Originally the short story was written as a political criticism of the Monarchy, based on the scandalous incident, where the bodies of Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera were found shot in a Royal hunting lodge, apparently a murder suicide which the Royal family kept from the public for many years.
Edward Norton as Eisenheim is understated and brilliant, as the many sleight of hand tricks in the film were actually done by the gifted actor. Norton must have practiced for months to reveal such confidence and skill needed for these types of trick. However, Norton's character portrayed a perfect man of mystery, begging the question, are these mere illusions or does Eisenheim possess supernatural power, controlling matter, energy, space and time itself.
The special effects in this film are well done. My favourite illusion in the film, (and they're many) is the Excalibur Sword illusion where Eisenheim borrows Rudolf's sword, somehow magnetizes it to the stage standing straight up, asking the various aristocrats' in the audience to release it from its position. Of course none can release the sword, as they, like the Arthur legend, are not meant to be king. When Prince Rudolf attempts to pull the sword from its stationary stance, he finally does so with great effort; by causing the ruthless Prince some embarrassment, Eisenheim is now a targeted enemy of the Crown.
Paul Giamatti as the corrupt Inspector Uhl really shows what a versatile and gifted actor he really is, able to do comedy, tragedy, fantasy...a very impressive performance.
The overall look of the film had the atmosphere as if we are viewing a primary historical source, the director using 80 year old editing techniques etc., this was unusual but effective for such a mixed genre film - fantasy, thriller, supernatural thriller and fairy tale romance.
When first seeing this film I was spellbound and the ending, a perfect twist, making The Illusionist a perfect example of skilful storytelling.