MOVIE REVIEW- V for Vienna: A romantic spooky illusion

Magicians creep me out, okay? Maybe it's a guy thing: if I can't be in control, I want to at least understand how things work.

In the movies, it's safe to attribute anything that appears magical (except a good story) to CGI, but The Illusionist is too magical on too many levels to be dismissed as mere trickery.

This is the movie Paul Giamatti should have made with M. Night Shyamalan instead of Lady in the Water. It gives the actor a chance to stretch and would have preserved the filmmaker's reputation for spinning a good yarn and catching viewers off guard.

Instead, it affirms the promise Neil Burger showed four years ago with the microbudgeted Interview with the Assassin. Burger directs from his own screenplay, based on Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist."

Though it's a bit less accessible, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this movie to anyone who liked V for Vendetta. The Illusionist takes place a century or so earlier in Vienna and distributes the basic elements– politics, action, and romance, all with a veneer of theatricality– differently. Both feature a Chief Inspector character– Stephen Rea in V, Giamatti in I– whose allegiance may shift as he becomes enlightened.

The emphasis in The Illusionist is on romance. After arresting Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) in the middle of a performance, Chief Inspector Uhl relates the backstory, some of it backlegend, of this son of a cabinetmaker who performs amazing tricks on stage.

As a teenager, Eisenheim carried on a forbidden friendship with Sophie, a girl of noble birth. When they were separated, he traveled the world, returning to Vienna 15 years later a star. Word of his fame reaches Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who attends a performance with his intended, Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Yes, that Sophie, all grown up.

So the stage is set for an unusual love triangle. Behind the scenes, Leopold– known to be rough on women– is planning to marry Sophie to cement his alliance with Hungary, through which he intends to usurp his father's throne.

The Chief Inspector (and it's amazing how Giamatti, the quintessential American, transforms himself into a turn-of-the-last-century Austrian) is essentially the Prince's hatchet man; yet as the son of a butcher, he forms a bond with Eisenheim because the gold ceiling will keep both of them from ever transcending their working-class origins. Besides, the Chief Inspector is "a bit of an amateur conjurer" who wants to know how Eisenheim does his less obvious tricks.

After a shift in dynamics, Eisenheim's show changes. Like Harry Houdini, he becomes obsessed with the afterlife and making contact across the barrier of death. He brings spirits onto the stage, visible and audible yet not material. It's as if he invented the hologram half a century before Dennis Gabor.

The final "reveal" is presented in a manner that will have even the MTV generation buying the DVD to catch details they missed.

Filmed in Prague, The Illusionist has a candle-lit palette (many of the lights are electric but dim), and its images are often fuzzy around the edges, enhancing the period look. Sewell's villain may be a bit caricatured, but there's nothing anachronistic about any of the performances.

As for Neil Burger, I'll wager he's just one or two very good films away from making a great one.