How else do you explain his career-long fascination with putting one over on the audience? There’s his screen debut, “Primal Fear,” playing a murderer pretending to be a victim. In “The Score,” he wasn’t what he appeared to be. “Fight Club” was a whole movie about a delusion. “Down in the Valley” had him as a make-believe cowboy in the modern-day San Fernando Valley.
That makes him a natural for “The Illusionist,” a lovely period piece about a magician who takes 19th-century Europe by storm, only to run afoul of the authorities when the phantasms he summons call into question the crimes of the German (or Austro-Hungarian) monarchy.
Norton, in wicked Lenin goatee and intense scowl, is Eisenheim, a mesmerizing stage presence, a conjurer who holds audiences transfixed with his tricks and his philosophical conjecture, about the nature of time, life and death.
The curtain opens, he stalks out to stage center, tears off his black gloves and hurls them at the audience. The gloves become crows, to the gasping amazement of the crowd. And that’s just for openers.
But Eisenheim has his Javert, named Chief Inspector Uhl (a very good Paul Giamatti). He’s the crown prince’s right-hand man. And he’s a skeptic. He wants to know how orange trees grow from a seed, right before our eyes. He can’t figure out how butterflies could be trained to carry a handkerchief back to a pretty lady in the audience.
Moreover, Uhl sees that an artist, by questioning the status quo –reality — can be a dangerous thing in an absolute monarchy.
Jessica Biel is nicely cast as the object of desire, Sophie, a young duchess who once was the illusionist’s childhood love, now promised to the crown prince. And Rufus Sewell plays another scene-chewing villain as that prince, a vain, cruel man rendered foolish by what Eisenheim has (or does not have) up his sleeve.
Norton may not have the stentorian voice for this sort of character (magician-turned-director Orson Welles did). But Norton certainly has the presence. Writer-director Neil Burger (Interview With the Assassin) makes the most of that, staging Norton’s conjuring scenes with flair and drama. Structurally, the movie (adapted from a Steven Millhauser shortstory) is too much gauzy flashback, with an inconsistent narration. But Burger does a nice job involving us in a story that is quite literally all “smoke and mirrors.”
It’s a movie to remind us of that shrinking capacity to amaze. As the camera rendered the magical mundane, we ceased to be astonished at things that earlier ages would have gasped over. The Illusionist reminds us that the more we know, the less enthralled we have become. Any character who blurts out “Let’s not ruin it,” when the trick is questioned, is speaking for us all.
And Norton is a magnetic and mysterious center to the piece, boring his eyes through the screen with his intensity, sadly lost in the love that was once and can never be, forever hiding his secrets even as we watch him prepping props and tradecraft as he readies his next astonishment.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Cast: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Eddie Marsan
Credits: Adapted for the screen and directed by Neil Burger. Running time: 1:50