ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Hollywood does not generally regard summer as a time for costume epics unless the costumes are made of spandex. But The Illusionist, which opens today, is bucking that tradition. It's a romantic drama set in the early 1900s. We'll talk to the director of the film in a few minutes.

First, Bob Mondello has a review.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

At the very outset of the film, a man in his shirtsleeves walks onto a stage that is empty except for a single chair. He sits down, raises his hand and conjures an image before a sellout crowd - a beautiful woman.

(Soundbite of The Illusionist)

Unidentified Woman: It's her! I know it's her! She wants to tell us something.

MONDELLO: As the footlights flicker, the man begins to tear up, and a police inspector standing off to one side orders his men to surround the stage. Then the inspector strides onto it himself to confront the crowd.

(Soundbite of The Illusionist)

Unidentified Man: In the name of his imperial majesty and the city of Vienna, I hereby arrest (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Threats against the empire? How did we reach this pretty pass? Only a few months earlier, the magician, played with fierce concentration by Edward Norton, had been the toast of Vienna - making orange trees materialize from empty pots, enlisting butterflies to transport handkerchiefs and capturing a soul in a mirror at a performance attended by the crown prince.

(Soundbite of The Illusionist)

Mr. EDWARD NORTON (Actor): (as Eisenheim) I need a volunteer from the audience. Someone not afraid of death. I assure you no tragedy will befall you.

MONDELLO: The prince volunteers the woman he plans to marry, the Duchess von Techen, and as she approaches Eisenheim on the stage, the magician's eyes widen slightly.

(Soundbite of The Illusionist)

Mr. NORTON: Do you know me?

Ms. JESSICA BIEL (Actress): (as Duchess von Techen) No.

MONDELLO: Ah, but a glance has passed between them. And it soon becomes clear to the inspector, whose job is to protect the prince's interests, that that's not all that has passed between them.

(Soundbite of The Illusionist)

Mr. NORTON: We were childhood acquaintances.

Unidentified Man: Acquaintances?

Mr. NORTON: Childhood friends. My father was a cabinetmaker. We made the furniture for her family's house.

Unidentified Man: I say. The cabinetmaker's son friends with -

Mr. NORTON: Has there been a complaint?

Unidentified Man: Oh no, no. If there'd been a complaint, now we'd be having a very different sort of conversation.

Mr. NORTON: He relies on you for that sort of thing.

Unidentified Man: I'm a simple public servant, Eisenheim.

Mr. NORTON: Well, they say you're very close to him so I'm sure you'll -

Unidentified Man: Look, yes indeed, they say that I am very close to the Prince. And the simple truth of the matter is, Herr Eisenheim, that I'm a son of a butcher. He's the heir to the empire. How close could we be to such as him? You see my point?

MONDELLO: Much is made of class differences in this classy film, but it's mostly about a magician who's willing to bring down the whole Hungarian Empire as long as he gets the girl. Considering that the girl is Jessica Biel, it's hard to blame him. Director Neil Burger delights in getting period details right - playing with filters and unusual film stocks to make the images look older - and showing how stage trickery was really managed a century or so ago.

On one occasion, Paul Giamatti's inspector gets the illusionist to explain a trick so clearly that I suspect lots of audience members will be attempting it themselves on the way out of the theater. I did and it works.

In short, the illusions are smart, as is the script. The photography is gorgeous, as is Biel. And the line between truth and illusion is blurred so persuasively that for a moment or two, you may even believe that a romantic costume drama could stand up to all those special effects blockbusters in the dog days of summer.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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