Low expectations are a good thing: they let me experience one of the pleasantest movie surprises of 2006 in the form of our first "period magician" drama, The Illusionist.

Well I remember first hearing about the project: Edward Norton! Paul Giamatti! Jessica...Biel...! (?) And I was excited. But a funny thing happened: the film got pushed back a little, and then a little more, and while I was busy forgetting about it, along comes the killing blow: the trailer for Chris Nolan's The Prestige, the other "period magician" drama that's actually more of a thriller. No longer did Norton and Giamatti hold the same appeal, not when I could compare them to Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (the less said about Scarlett Johansson vs. poor Jessica Biel, the better). "Oh, they're American," I sniffed, "fuck them for a period drama."

I was wrong, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Norton and Giamatti are nothing if not professionals, and they both turn in fantastic performances: neither is at their career peak, but that's just about the worst thing I can say.

Norton playes Eisenheim, Edward Abramowitz, a stage magician in Vienna late in the 19th Century. He is incredibly good at what he does, so much so that the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), apparently based on Crown Prince Rudolf but of altogether meaner temperament,* asks to see him in a private performance. Eisenheim has a particular reason to hate this prince, insofar as his childhood sweetheart is now the Duchess Sophie (Biel), and she is Leopold's "special lady." Eisenheim takes the opportunity to make a fool of the prince, leading that man to call upon his lackey and head of Vienna's police force, Inspector Uhl (Giamatti).

And that is all I shall say about the plot. For much like The Sting, it is a film that is about a professional trickster, and to underscore that fact it plays upon us a trick of its own, and to go much further would be to open up a world of spoilers.

Except that it's somewhat disappointing how easy the ending is to predict; Eisenheim is a much better illusionist than writer-director Neil Burger. I was, so to speak, watching the correct hand for the whole trick, and so I regarded the climactic reveal that the ball was in his back pocket all along with a bit of a yawn, and now I will put that godforsaken metaphor out of its misery.

Luckily, the trick ending isn't so necessary as the film regards it, and the film rolls merrily along right up until the end (where there is still the joy of having all of your guesses confirmed, and knowing that the wily magician isn't nearly so smart as yourself). This is in no small part due to the aforementioned Giamatti and Norton, who I'm pleased to say are not in the least way like Americans. Giamatti, who in the end turns out to be the lead, or at least the audience surrogate, adopts a teeny touch of a German accent that does not distract. More importantly, he adopts the perfect relationship in between Eisenheim and the prince: his loyalties pull him to the side of law and order, and yet his infatuation with magic and process draw him over to the anarchic illusionist. There is a perfect moment late in the film when Uhl opens a book purporting to explain one of Eisenheim's more elaborate tricks, and seems almost disappointed that it merely contains a vital clue. None of this is explicit in the script, but it is necessary to the film, and the knowledge of that difference is what divides a great performer from a good one.

Norton is the cast's true standout, though, and for exactly the same reason. I've never read Steven Millhauser's "Eisenheim the Illusionist," the story upon which the film was based, but I do know that it makes explicit what the film does not, that Eisenheim was Jewish (although his birth surname, Abramowitz, is a fairly big clue). Norton does, adopting a teeny touch of a German Jewish accent, or perhaps a combination of German and American Jewish; it doesn't matter, because when you're listening to him you can tell it's there. And it matters very much: the history of Judaism in Europe is both too well-known and far too complicated to get into here, but surely we can all agree that a Jew in Vienna around 1890 is in a much different place than a non-Jew. Besides that, the performance is a great depiction of a passionate man who never seems to emote: he is after all a great illusionist, and what better disguise for a Romantic than to act aloof and remote? This only intensifies the effect when he flickers the hints of feeling, such as his pleasure at mocking the prince, or his evident love for Sophie.

The look of the film is fantastic. It was filmed in the Czech Republic, and that's close enough to Pre-WWI Europe to these American eyes that the production is one of the least-stagey looking period films I have ever seen. Which matters more than we like to admit. It's been shot by frequeny Mike Leigh collaborator Dick Pope with a lighting technique that I am at a lost to name, but which gives the film the look of an old - very old - first decade of motion pictures old - silent film brought into the color age. No one would ever mistake the film for that vintage (the compositions are all wrong, for one), but it lays a patina of subtle historicity over the proceedings that gives the story an almost undeserved gravitas.

Undeserved I say, and it's more or less the truth: there isn't a whole lot of a thematic core to the film. Sophie is not enough of a character in either the writing of the performance to support the role the story needs her to play, and this tends to cheapen Eisenheim's status as a romantic hero despite Norton's efforts. And absent that emotional core, and the ineffective twist, the only "there" lies in our identification with the enthusiastic Uhl, watching in amazement as Eisenheim performs one great feat after another. And he truly does: real-life magicians James Freedman and Ricky Jay were brought on the instruct Norton and the rest of the cast in sleight-of-hand, and so nearly all of the illusions are done practically, with little or no CGI sweetening. And it's quite amazing to watch and have no idea how it's done, and at the end when Uhl figures out Eisenheim's last trick with a great smile of delighted respect, it's not hard to feel exactly the same way - delighted respect seems to be the only way to respond to this film and its celebration of its own deceit and trickery and illusion.

8/10