The Illusionist

Calling “The Illusionist” a romantic thriller is like calling a chihuahua a guard dog. It might technically be true, but you shouldn’t expect much from it.

It has the trappings of romance, sure enough — a turn-of-the-last-century Viennese setting, gorgeous period costumes, a lush Philip Glass musical score, and a plot involving star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks.

Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the son of a cabinetmaker, is now a popular stage magician, a purveyor of tricks so clever they border on the supernatural. (Indeed, like most films about magicians, this one has him doing things that no real-life magician would be able to duplicate.) Night after night his theater fills with people from all over Vienna, including a police inspector named Uhl (Paul Giamatti) who fancies himself an amateur illusionist and is keen to learn the secrets.

One night Eisenheim calls for a volunteer from the audience and realizes the woman who has responded is Sophie (Jessica Biel), the duchess he shared a brief, forbidden love affair with when they were teenagers. She is now engaged to marry Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the crown prince and a truly humorless man. She doesn’t love him, though, and she and Eisenheim rekindle their old feelings.

Now, if being in love with a duchess who’s engaged to a prince sounds like a bad idea, factor in the prince’s famously sour disposition and see what you come up with. Inspector Uhl discovers the affair, reports to Leopold, and soon enough there is a murder. It befalls the living to vindicate the dead and uncover the villain, and that’s where the “thriller” part of the film’s description comes into play.

Written and directed by Neil Burger from a short story by Steven Millhauser, “The Illusionist” can boast Giamatti’s performance as the garrulous, obsessive inspector as its strongest asset — and Edward Norton’s performance, sadly, as its weakest. Norton’s accent is dubious, an evanescent combination of British and Austrian (Braustrian, I like to call it), and it masks a problem I’ve never seen Norton have before: He seems to have no idea who he’s playing. There is no sense of weight or depth in Eisenheim, even when he’s allegedly expressing emotion over his perilous situation with Sophie.

Of Jessica Biel, as usual, the less said the better. Ditto Rufus Sewell’s scenery-chewing as Leopold.

It’s a marginal story, and passionless in the way it’s been antiseptically brought to the screen, but it’s not unenjoyable. Lackluster performances aside, the film evokes its time and place exceptionally well. This may be enough to transport viewers to 1900 Vienna and give them some satisfaction, though they might be disappointed to discover the film has nothing up its sleeve after all.

C+ (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, a bit of sexuality, one F-word.)