I've complained about them, been bored with them and too often dismissed them. But I'd like to admit at the beginning of this post something I never thought I'd say:
I loved this [gulp] period piece.
The Illusionist, set around 1900 in Vienna, Austria, is definitely a period piece. The dress, the accents, the hoity-toity high society customs and pretentious manners of royalty--all present in the movie, all the time. But, The Illusionist isn't about the period. The story of love, mystery, corruption and politics could have easily been a modern day-themed flick. The film was so well done that after the first 10 minutes I didn't even notice the Austrian accents of the characters.
Edward Norton is Eisenheim the Illusionist who, as a young child, met and fell in love Sophie, a royal who would in later years become engaged to the Crown Prince. Young Eisenheim is obsessed with magic and illusion, and spends hours a day fine-tuning his skills. After being forced never to see each other again--after all, a royal chick can't date a commoner--Eisenheim travels the world in order to educate himself in the dark arts.
Years later, his skill at illusion is so great it is rumored that he sold his soul to Satan for his magical ability.
Crown Prince Leopold, a tyrant who happens to also be now engaged to Sophie, becomes obsessed with figuring out Eisenheim's tricks. When he can't--and after he has been embarrassed by the magician-- Leopold orders Eisenheim's act to be shut down. By that time, however, Eisenheim and Sophie have reconnected and schemed to leave the area to live together. In a happily-ever-after sorta way.
The remaining portion of The Illusionist is a brilliant mystery that involves redirection, intrigue, political manipulation and a murder investigation. Paul Giammati, who plays mostly corrupt Inspector Uhl, is remarkable as a character who admires Eisenheim as a person and as an artist, but feels obligated to carry out the wishes of his despot Prince. Uhl knows where his bread is buttered, and his personal ambition plays a significant role in making the outcome of this movie a success.
Someday, The Academy is gonna figure it out and give this guy the Oscar he deserves.
Across the board, the acting in this movie is outstanding, and light is used perfectly to create a constant visual sense of mystery. Although the ending is somewhat predictable, how the movie gets there is more important than how the movie concludes.