Fine old-fashioned drama about a mysterious magician (Edward Norton) in turn-of-the-century Vienna who must outwit the cruel crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire (a snarling Rufus Sewell, who looks like a brunette Jude Law in this picture) for the hand of his long-lost love Sophie (Jessica Biel, slightly miscast but forgiven). Some foul play occurs, and it is up to Chief Inspector Uhl, very nicely played by Paul Giamatti, to put the pieces together.
Uhl is a difficult character to play: the story is more or less told through his eyes, and yet he is not a central part of it. It takes a particular actor to make such a character interesting, and writer/director Burger (adapting the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser) is as lucky to get Giamatti for the role as he is to get the never-less-than-good Edward Norton in the lead. The two play off each other very well.
Production values are all top-notch, with matchless talent such as costume designer Ngila Dickson, composer Philip Glass, and cinematographer Dick Pope, best known for his increasingly stunning Mike Leigh films. The team expertly renders the time and place, and the cast finds just the right accent: Crisp and vaguely German-ish, without devolving into Sergeant Schultz-like parody ("I vill get dot schweinhund!").
But if the story's no good, the movie's no good, and The Illusionist's story is just fine, thank you. Intriguing, dramatic and filled with genuine magic and mystery, it's a movie that will appeal to both you the film snob and your Columbo-loving granny as well. It may not be the best picture of 2006, but it's very well done. I have no complaints with The Illusionist and happily recommend it to all.