Could there be a more unlikely Hollywood sex symbol than Edward Norton? The drained complexion, the stooped shoulders, the nonexistent jawline.
He is, however, a profoundly gifted physical actor. Whether dealing from the bottom as a card hustler in “Rounders,” squeezing off revolver rounds as an alienated cowboy in “Down in the Valley” or performing mesmerizing sleight of hand as a lovesick magician in his latest movie, Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” Norton is always in command. His gift is ingenuity, and his masculine presence is unmistakable.
The actor gives his most dashing performance yet as Eisenheim, a 19th-century illusionist who uses his near-paranormal talents to woo the love of his life and defy the tyrant who would control her. Years before, as the son of a humble tradesman, the lad was driven out of Vienna by authorities who disapproved of his romance with a high-born beauty named Sophie.
Now, like an Austrian Gatsby, he returns to the city as a celebrated showman, only to find Sophie (Jessica Biel) in the romantic orbit of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the scheming, corrupt heir to the foundering Hapsburg dynasty.
Perplexed and clearly threatened by Eisenheim’s stage magic, Leopold invites him to perform at the palace, setting in motion a dangerous triangle of love, jealousy and defiance.
“Maybe I’ll make you disappear,” Eisenheim taunts the would-be monarch, before humiliating him in front of his retinue. As always, Sewell (“Dark City”) makes an archly satisfying villain, all crazed ambition and bug-eyed hauteur. He’s like Marty Feldman on steroids.
Determined to destroy Eisenheim, the prince dispatches his trusted henchman, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to expose his secrets. Despite himself, Uhl takes a shine to the upstart magician, who shares the lawman’s blue-collar upbringing and stirs his dormant sense of integrity. Whenever two actors of Giamatti and Norton’s caliber share the screen, one expects the best, and in this case they don’t disappoint.
By and by, one of the characters is murdered, and the movie abruptly trades orientation, from a handsome if harmless piece of romantic escapism to an intriguing meditation on perception and control (entirely appropriate, given the movie’s Kafkaesque trappings).
The one aspect of “The Illusionist” that doesn’t really work is the ending, a gimmicky, Keyser Söze sort of thing that takes our credulity far too much for granted. Defying a bug-eyed tyrant is easy; defying convention proves a tall order indeed.
Rated PG-13 (violence and sexuality), 110 min. Grade: B