- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Edward Norton needs no sleight of hand to amaze us. The actor’s young career is marked by astonishing turns (“Primal Fear,” “American History X”) and an unwillingness to sell out — the 2003 genre romp “The Italian Job” reportedly stemmed from a contractual sand trap.

So, watching his character in Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” bewitch the masses feels like sneaking into a dress rehearsal. Even if he misses a cue, we expect to be wowed. The actor lives up to his own hype here, but he can’t make the distance we feel from his Eisenheim the Illusionist disappear.

Mr. Norton’s Eisenheim is a Viennese magician circa 1900 with a considerable following. Audiences cheer on his illusions, and our mouths are left agape, as well. Is Eisenheim merely a performer, or is he working with powers beyond mere conjuring tricks?

No matter, since Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) wants Eisenheim arrested before proof of his powers can be verified. Mr. Sewell’s prince is your stock villain, somehow made hissably new.

Eisenheim has enough reason to distrust Leopold, but his animus boils over when he learns the prince is to marry Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” fame, cast against type). Years earlier, Eisenheim shared a brief romance with the young duchess, but circumstances and class distinctions shattered their bond.

Now, the illusionist has the power to wrest her from Leopold, but will the crooked politician thwart his plans before they materialize? Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, marvelous as usual) is charged by the prince to bring Eisenheim down, but from the outset the inspector is clearly tortured about the mission.

“The Illusionist” is similarly conflicted, managing to ensnare and lose us every 15 or so minutes. The lovers’ back story is simple to the point of stupefaction. The film’s romance is built upon the pair’s soppy past, but there’s precious little heat stoked in the present.

Miss Biel, freed from roles carved from her curves, fits snugly into period garb, even if her role is thinly realized.

Eisenheim himself is cut from sympathetic cloth, but it’s the rare performance from Mr. Norton where he remains frustratingly out of reach.

Mr. Norton’s character has one last trick up his sleeve as the conclusion arrives, and, while it’s a dilly, it lacks the hoped for emotional resonance. The stunt is just that, a parlor trick of the senses.

Writer-director Neil Burger has fashioned a richly imagined period piece like few others, but his ultimate illusion is turning the beguiling Mr. Norton into a cipher.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Illusionist”

RATING: PG-13 (Some sexuality and violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Neil Burger, based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.theillusionist.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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