There are beards aplenty - and a sizable helping of romance, mystery and magic - in Neil Burger's delightful 'The Illusionist'. Strong performances from the central quartet - Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell - give depth to a traditional story in which magic is celebrated and love is seen to triumph over all.
Set in Vienna in 1900 (hence the beards), Eisenheim the Illusionist (Norton) is creating a sensation amongst the theatre-going public with his magic tricks, which veer on the supernatural. The film opens with one of his performances being shut down by Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) on the orders of Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell), heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A series of flashbacks within flashbacks tell the story of Eisenheim's love for Sophie von Teschen (Biel), Prince Leopold's intended, and the resulting events, all observed by the magic-fascinated Chief Inspector.
'The Illusionist' is an elegantly realised film, courtesy of cinematography from frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Dick Pope ('Vera Drake', 'All or Nothing', 'Topsy-Turvy') and camera work which lingers lovingly on the grandeur of old Vienna. Edward Norton is a perfectly buttoned-down hero, Paul Giamatti is suitably engaging as the benevolent Chief Inspector and Rufus Sewell, bearing an uncanny resemblance to James Joyce when he ventures out in disguise, seems to thoroughly enjoy playing another Bad Man. Best known for her role in the long-running 'Seventh Heaven', Jessica Biel here shows her acting chops as the graceful, charming heroine.
Although the fact that the central illusion is quite obvious does somewhat take from this film, the (mainly) American cast's attempts at Mittel-European accents come across rather oddly and there are more than a few anachronisms on display, 'The Illusionist' is still that rare beast, an enjoyably old-fashioned romance.