Neil Burger’s The Illusionist
The twin film concept is widely known to bring two similar films into the public consciousness at nearly the exact same time and usually one of them is the underdog while the other one is a big studio extravaganza or simply a story that feels bigger as it is told, marketed and cast. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is the twin I’m talking about but today I shall follow in the tradition of cheering on the underdog instead, as I discuss Neil Burger’s sublime and magical period piece The Illusionist.
© 20th Century Fox
I say magical, but I do mean illusionistic — or is it illusory? The lines blur quite a bit in this tale of young love torn apart by status, only to have that strengthen its bond for a lifetime and bring the two lovers back together at a very different point in their lives. A point, it seems, where neither of them has yet overcome their feelings for the other and where they are old enough to not again have outside forces decide their fate but make it themselves.
Something has always gripped me about this film, and I remember it so vividly after so many years since I last watched it. I’ve always felt there would come a day for me to rewatch it, but I wanted the mood for it to be right, to fully savor the experience, and today was that day. From the first minute on, one thing became unmistakably clear and that is, that this film is carried along and is defined by the soundscape created for it by one of the most impactful and stimulating composers out there: Philip Glass. The way he builds the theme of the young lovers while giving us a sense of centuries passing by in front of our eyes and grandeur unfolding is downright masterful and he deserves great praise for his work on this film and it stands among his finest work.
Music alone plays a huge role in how I perceive a film but there is so much more here that makes up this fascinating whole than just Glass’ ominous, loving, and grand melodies. Despite being the smaller of the two twin films, The Illusionist made roughly two million dollars more when deducting its budget alone from its worldwide box office and, even if that’s just a monetary fact, it fills me with joy to find out that the film did so well when it originally came out, although it’s hard to imagine that could be repeated today. Now, why am I mentioning this monetary fact? Look at the production design of the film and you’ll have your answer because even though it makes great use of its wonderful interior locations in theaters and the Hofburg, the film has a lot of outdoor scenes with extras, carriages, and buildings to show for it on its modest budget and the overall beauty and softness of the film’s Oscar-nominated look greatly add to the turn-of-the-century setting.
While it is a story full of magical moments and passionate love reawakening, the film also deals with a more sinister side embodied by a crown prince, who is clearly an authoritarian and even has designs on overthrowing his emperor father, and the complex figure of a police inspector who seems drawn to the promise of power while in the service of said authoritarian but whose conscience is fighting him while his fascination for Edward Norton’s central illusionist character Eisenheim is evident from the first moment we see the inspector react to Eisenheim’s performance. The authoritarian is a ruthless bully who is quick to anger and feels threatened by the simplest of gestures which, however, holds potent meaning in front of the right audience as the scene with the sword stuck to the ground so aptly demonstrates. “There’s a thousand different voices screaming to be heard and nothing will be done. Nothing!”, he’ll say later, spoken like the true, power-hungry fascist he is.
I’m the first to admit that I’m convinced that many of us carry this idea as a kernel of truth within us, particularly when things aren’t going our way and we feel like only we know the right steps to take to fix it all, but it is in accepting that this is a misguided notion to pursue that we become more empathetic to those around us and more at peace with ourselves. All we can do is our best and hope that we inspire others to do the same.