What do you get when you combine romance, magic, a murder mystery with a supernatural element, and a dash of turn-of-the-century Austrian politics? Toss in Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell and Jessica Biel, and you have Neil Burger's fanciful tale The Illusionist, based on a short story called Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser. The film is about two young lovers of differing social rank, whose youthful romance is torn asunder by the constraints of class and duty, leaving young Sophie with nothing but a fond memory of the love of her youth and a remarkable locket with a secret.
Years later, Sophie's childhood friend and first love has grown to be Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a handsome, darkly brooding young man not unlike the kind of young men one can find sitting around internet cafes today: Nattily dressed in black, doodling in sketch books or writing frantically in poetry journals; serious, intellectual young men, with an air of tragedy or loss (or perhaps just chronic depression) hovering around them like an impenetrable cloud. Eisenheim is a late 19th century version of the ever-romantic brooding artist figure, and Norton seems to feel at home in the "glowering moodily-from-under-the-brows" look. Eisenheim interacts with others primarily through the magical illusions he performs on stage, keeping himself an arm's length from humanity. One of these illusions, "The Orange Tree," in which the illusionist seemingly grows an orange tree in a pot from a seed right before the audiences's eyes, captures the fancy of Vienna's Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).