Neil Burger may only have one other film to his credit (the 2002 fake documentary Interview with the Assassin), but one can see no signs of any inexperience while watching The Illusionist. The film effortlessly draws the viewer in, and like the best illusionists, while it may hint at its secrets, it never truly reveals them. The characters are vibrant and interesting, with the story being advanced by each one acting true to their own motivations.
The cast is nothing less than superb; Edward Norton once again proves himself a complete chameleon, Rufus Sewell is a most convincing Crown Prince (and appears to be having a very good time playing the role) and Jessica Biel is a suitably radiant presence in her best role to date. But it is Paul Giamatti who carries this film. Every movement, every word, every nuance is a tool in the hands of a master craftsman, but one doesn't see the work that goes into it, only the character that he creates. This is a pretty unusual part for him, but he inhabits it so perfectly that it is impossible to imagine almost anybody else in the role.
But the pleasures of the movie don't stop with the story and performances. Ondrej Nekvasil's production design makes excellent use of the Prague locations to create a period Vienna, which, along with Dick Pope's photography, infuse the entire affair with a period authenticity. The movie manages to be at once stylistically very modern and evocative of the time in which it is set, no easy feat but one that adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the film. Phillip Glass' score seems to emanate directly from the characters and settings, organically growing out of the film (a reaction I generally do not have to his film music, which I usually find more intellectual than emotional), bringing to the forefront the emotional content of the picture.
While the film has been called a mystery, it isn't so much about that as it is about how perception is mutable. Early on in the film, Eisenheim reveals how a simple parlor trick is done to Inspector Uhl. Rather than spoiling the illusion, it instead promotes admiration for how Eisenheim is able to take reality and create an illusion from it. It isn't about whodunit, it's about showmanship, it's about the smoke and mirrors. It doesn't show you how the tricks are done, mind you, but rather asks you to revel in the illusion itself. Which is what cinema is all about, after all.