Dir.Neil Burger. US. 2005. 110mins.

Magic is the artof distraction. The Illusionistsucceeds because writer-director Neil Burger has his audience concentrate onEdward Norton's title character while Paul Giamatti'sfoil bustles around the picture providing the drama. The resulting periodromantic thriller is an attractive after-dinner treat which not only tastesdelicious but lingers on the palate.

Smart handling could deliver a modest success basedprimarily on its certain appeal with women. International prospects could yieldsimilar results, although the relatively low-profile cast may be an issue. DVDpotential is strong given the latitude for special features devoted to thecraft itself.

The problem with a movie about a magician is thatthe form itself is magic, particularly in contemporary pictures with theirseamless CG effects that can convincingly pull a hat out of a rabbit. But The Illusionist is not about magic:rather it's a charmingly human story about the transformation of a court lackeyinto a man of honour and distinction. Indeed, theentire picture is told in flashback as Giamatti'sChief Inspector Uhl of the Vienna constabularyexplains to his liege Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell) why he has yet to imprison Eisenheim The Illusionist.

This story within the story is the purestmelodrama. A boy, son of the court carpenter, has a transforming encounter witha magician. Developing his sleight-of-hand, he catches the eye of a youngduchess and spawns an impossible romance of clandestine meetings over severalyears.

As the guardians of the blossoming duchess beardown on their hideaway, she implores the blossoming youth to make them bothdisappear. But his powers are not yet up to the task. He exiles himself to themystical Far East and returns 15 years later as Eisenheim.

As he begins to beguile, the film's period sets andconvincing Prague locations combine to draw the viewer into belle epoque Vienna while Burger employs a purposefultheatricality to create a world populated by four persons and a vast Greekchorus.

The young duchess, Sophie (Beil),is now in full flower and soon to be plucked by the urbane but ruthless CrownPrince - until the fateful evening of her re-encounter with the boy from herpast on Eisenheim's stage as his volunteer. There isa love triangle, a murder and an investigator torn between his loyalty to theCrown and his dawning democratic principals.

Edward Norton is excellent as Eisenheim,a narrow role that he broadens by telegraphing the metaphorical constraint amagician must feel when operating at the margin between the natural andsupernatural.

Rufus Sewell is similarly splendid, delivering arestrained but subtly inflected performance that puts flesh on a character thatmight otherwise have been merely malevolent. Jessica Bielis radiant in every sense: this role suggests she could rise above the plasticIt Girl morass.

But the picture is Giamatti's- and to his still greater credit, he knows it but doesn't show it. An amateurconjuror himself, Uhl is dazzled by Eisenheim's skill but is trapped within the black box ofhis status as willing functionary to a corrupt master.

Bearing in mind that Uhlis relating the story with mere snippets of voice-over narration, Burger'sscript and Giamatti's performance combine to create aremarkable trompe d'oiel:the escape artist in the picture is not the illusionist but the foil.

Production companies
Bob Yari Productions
Bulls Eye Entertainment
Michael London Productions
Contageous Pictures

International sales
Yari Film Group

Executive producers
Jane Garnett
Tom Nunan

Michael London
Brian Koppelman
David Levien
Bob Yari
Cathy Schulman

Neil Burger, based on the short story Eisenheim The Illusionist by Steven Millhauser

Dick Pope

Production design
Ondrej Nekvasil

Naomi Geraghty

Philip Glass

Main cast
Edward Norton
Paul Giamatti
Jessica Biel
Rufus Sewell