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‘Illusionist’ materializes 

NOW YOU SEE THEM: Norton and Biel.
  • NOW YOU SEE THEM: Norton and Biel.

I love film, but my first love has always been fiction — particularly short fiction, compact jewel boxes with bits of other people’s lives inside. In the past few years, one of the writers I have fallen hard for is Steven Millhauser. The foremost of a growing American fabulist movement in fiction, Millhauser’s delicate, amazing stories and novels are like nothing so much as fragments of dreams, caught and preserved in print.

Given how odd and fanciful Millhauser’s stories can be — full of sumptuous Gilded Age detail and characters who do and experience things no human ever could — it has taken years for the magic of cinema to finally catch up to him.

The result is the flawed but satisfying costume drama “The Illusionist.” A restrained and gorgeous bit of film, with great performances all around, it is one of those movies that wants to be a masterpiece so badly that it eventually trips over its own feet.

In a performance perfectly suited to his skill as an actor, Edward Norton plays Eisenheim. As a boy — a lowly cabinet maker’s son in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna — Eisenheim had fallen in love with the daughter of a client; a duchess, no less, who was already betrothed at a young age to the man who would someday be king. After emissaries of the prince tear Sophie (Jessica Biel) and Eisenheim apart, young Eisenheim sets off on a trek to the dark and magical places of the world, in search of secrets.

On his return 15 years later, Eisenheim opens a theater in Vienna and begins amazing the populace with his skill. At a command performance for the dastardly Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience and who should volunteer but Sophie, his old love, soon to marry Leopold.

Over the course of the second and third acts — and with conscience-ridden Leopold stooge Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) puzzling out their every move — Sophie and Eisenheim rekindle their love and come up with a plan to pull off the great magician’s most daring trick: their escape from the evil prince and his iron grasp.

While Norton and Biel work well together here, exuding a real chemistry and making the audience truly care for their characters and the survival of their love, it is Giamatti who steals the show. As he was in the laughably bad “Lady in the Water,” Giamatti is a bright spot here as the conflicted Uhl, a man who is desperately trying to balance his kind nature against both his ambition and the things he must do to stay in favor with Leopold. Still, even with Giamatti hitting on all eight, and a sumptuous and sublime tale of love and redemption played out in the first and second acts, “The Illusionist” suffers mightily in the final frames, taking the predictable road and making a run-of-the-mill whodunit out of what had been shaping up to be a dazzling tale of loss and magical revenge. Though the results are serviceable and even enjoyable, they just don’t live up to the promise and quality of the first half of the film.

“The Illusionist” is a film of beauty and substance, constructed around a number of powerful performances. Though the writer and director couldn’t bear to have it all end on the somber note that might have made it a true must-see, it is still a stunningly effective piece of cinema. If you’re a fan of great acting — or you just enjoy the feeling of unexpectedly smiling at the sheer loveliness of a film — see it soon.

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