Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord,
exulting in his deliverance.
All my bones shall say,
‘O Lord, who is like you?
You deliver the weak
from those too strong for them,
the weak and needy from those who despoil them.’
It is 1900, and after over 200 years of the battle of rationalism against spiritualism, the former has gained the upper hand, but the latter has not been entirely vanquished. This battle underlies one of the most romantic love stories you are likely to see this year. A magician calling himself Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is the rage of Vienna with his marvelous conjuring tricks, such as making a volunteer to disappear or growing an orange tree from a seed in a matter of minutes. Arrayed against him is Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), ambitiously scheming to become the next Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so rationalistic that his latest obsession is to prove that all of Eisenheim’s illusions are tricks. His main ally in the battle is Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to whom he has promised the position of Chief of Police when he assumes the throne—and thus the Inspector is charged with watching the magician’s every move.
Sophie (Jessica Biel) is the romantic interest for both Eisenheim and Leopold. When she and Eisenheim were children they had been playmates, despite the vast differences in their status in society, she highborn and Eisenheim the son of a carpenter. The boy becomes fascinated by magic when he meets an itinerant magician. His and Sophie’s friendship turns to love when they are teenagers, and it is then that her family steps in and orders them never to see each other again. The boy leaves town and travels the world, reportedly spending time in India and other places of the Far East. And then, years later, he turns up in Vienna and captures the interest of the theater-going public with his spectacular shows. It is at one of these that Sophie, in attendance with Leopold, comes forward to volunteer for a trick. They recognize one another, and their old passion blazes up again.
Leopold plans to announce soon his engagement to Sophie, so his battle against Eisenheim is two-fold, a matter of heart and mind. During their struggle Eisenheim becomes a threat to the political order, so much of the public regarding him as a cult figure. When it appears that Leopold has killed Sophie in a fit of jealous rage, Eisenheim fascinates the audience by his act of conjuring Sophie’s spirit, which reveals that her death was not the accident pronounced by the authorities, but was murder. Eisenheim makes no claims of supernatural powers, but his not denying them allows for his audience to believe that he does indeed. The wrath of the public grows so intense that Leopold calls in the troops to put an end to the magicians seditious act.
The intricate plot rushes on, bringing us to a point not anticipated. The film was directed and written by Neil Burger, based on the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser. Another instance of the powerless using all their wit and resources to defeat the designs of the rich and the powerful, this is a film that will satisfy the romantic and the rooter for the under dog.