Awash in sepia tones, with deep shadows parallelizing the shadowy secrets of illusion and death, director Neil Burger escorts us, in his second film production, through the story of a master illusionist, told with sterling, yet ironic, realism. Every directorial choice, from the young illusionist’s earnestness in his secret burrow to Sophie’s entrance at the theater, adds to our understanding of the characters and reinforces the storyline, helping reveal thematic meaning.
The work of editor Naomi Geraghty, who has performed in perfect synchronicity with Burger, produces a continuous, unbroken view of the fabric of these lives unfolding before us. The Illusionist is the finest film since Chariots of Fire. Burger and his creative production crew blend light and shadow, youth and maturity, illusion and fact all together to produce an artistic, flawless whole that is the epitome of mystifying, intriguing, captivating entertainment.
A fine furniture maker’s son falls in love with illusion and a child-duchess falls in love with him. Theirs is a perfect youthful love, except for one thing: He is a peasant and she a duchess. Their young love is not to be and he leaves the village (for nobler reasons than the tantrums of a broken heart) and ultimately dedicates himself to illusion. In his mature years, as a master illusionist. he performs in Vienna and as fate would have it, he encounters the duchess who is also at the height of her powers and beauty.
Circumstances throw them together more than once and soon, a murder must be accounted for, treason and betrayal must be answered for and the illusionist is driven to perform the two most astounding feats of his career. The Chief Inspector, an admirer of illusion and genius, has the task of sorting friend from foe, truth from deception and corruption from loyal honesty. The end of his journey takes him by surprise, again and again, but, ultimately, in his hand lies the knowledge of how to bring new life from a seed.
Set in Vienna at the end of the Hapsburg Empire era, the corrupt Crown Prince Leopold (modeled after Crown Prince Rudolf Hapsburg), Emperor-to be, is beguiled by power and by the power of science, knowing and facts. In his corruption, he is about to sabotage the Empire and, with it, the inner truth – which appears illusionary – of his subjects. In the end, he sabotages himself and, in so doing, the test is made between the power of visible empirical truth and the power of illusionary truth.
Edward Norton, who plays the illusionist is startlingly perfect in this role, one almost questions that it is a role. Edward Norton (Kingdom of Heaven), playing Eisenheim, is so exquisite, to the finest point and detail, that watching The Illusionist is like opening a magical aperture into another time and watching, undetected, the actual workings out of lives in progress. Jessica Biel as Sophie contributes equally to this illusion of watching through a hidden aperture. She is not only beautiful, she is superb in a difficult role. Sophie knows things that we are not meant to know.
She must keep these things she knows hidden from us, just as she must keep them hidden from the other people in her life on screen. Jessica Biel (Stealth) does this without one shade of a slip: We believe what Biel wants us to believe; we never think what she does not want us to think. The rest of the cast, especially Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man) as Chief Inspector Uhl and Rufus Sewell (Tristan & Isolde) as Crown Prince Leopold, as well as the children actors representing Edvard and Sophie in their youthful years, are all without flaw, all excellent, all perfectly drawing a true life picture for us as we watch through the invisible aperture.
The screenplay, also by Neil Burger and based on a short story by former Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser, is a testament to logic, to precision, to elegance and taste, to intelligence and to suspenseful story telling. The story presents how life is driven by opposites: by rationality, by emotion; by reason, by compulsion; by duplicity, by honesty. Millhauser and then Burger wrote a profound revelation of human nature and psychology. Moreover, this revelation, put on the screen by Burger, is in the best style of simple and yet profound language – language which reveals heart and mind even as it moves story and action along.
Cinematography and lighting, by Dick Pope, are, at one and the same time, derived from the excellence of the screenplay and woven as reinforcement into the elements of the screenplay. For instance, illusion is enhanced by lights and shadows playing in every scene, whether indoors or out. Further, the combination of long shots and close-ups adds to the feeling of revealing mysteries (like the mystery of an orange tree growing in mere moments) and simultaneously protecting mysteries. Set production is impeccable, sets being both beautiful and descriptive of the characters in the film’s story, whether through the antler-hung long hallway or the shape of the illusionist’s room. Pope’s production design enhances the power of an integrally unified film.
The Illusionist is a story of regained love, of reclaimed innocence and life, of truth behind illusions and of illusions behind truth. Director Burger orchestrates no false note, makes no false turn, takes no false step in this cinematic experience in which eyes are a great symbol: the eyes of the illusionist, of Sophie, of Chief Inspector Uhl, of the Crown Prince: Who of these sees what is an illusion? Who sees the truth? Who sees whether truth is that which is apparent or unapparent? How is truth made? Is it from facts and science or from illusion and mystery?
I walked out of the theater in a daze that didn’t clear for at least five minutes: The real world looked gray and glaringly unreal, my thoughts still swirling with the illusionist and his triumph over truth. This movie will win many Academy Awards, including for best editor – a category in which Moviedom seems to fall flat on its face in most films. On a scale of 1-5, The Illusionist is a 10, all right, I can’t go over 5. The Illusionist is the definition of “5.”
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