Click here to listen to the interview with Neil Burger (15:34).
A man in shirtsleeves sitting in intense concentration on a bare stage. The audience watching in rapt silence. Police lining the aisles ready to act. Thus begins THE ILLUSIONIST, a tale of sleight-of-hand, misdirection, and magic in many senses of the word.
The only thing to be sure of in this loose but apt adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short-story, ”Eisenheim the Illusionist” is the abiding but star-crossed love that its title character, played by Edward Norton, feels for Sophie (Jessica Biel). He is the son of a carpenter and she is a duchess destined for a place in the dynasty ruling the Austro-Hungarian Empire, specifically as the wife of the heir apparent, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Theological implications, though, are brushed aside, and in their place is a consideration of the profound effect illusions have on human beings, from delight to contempt, and the uncanny ability of those illusions to seduce in either case. The contempt is embodied in Leopold, a man with sadistic tendencies and an absolute belief in reality that extends to shaking off sentimental forms of governments and human interactions in favor of authoritarian efficiency. The delight is embodied in the population at large, who pack the theater where Eisenheim performs such feats as coaxing mature orange trees from a single seed and raising the dead. It’s also embodied in Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) the police officer that Leopold assigns to shut Eisenheim down for reasons that go beyond his place in Sophie’s affections. His delight is in the illusion itself, but also in figuring out how it’s done, the craftiness of the design and the subtle tricks that are there to be seen if you know where to look. All in all, it’s an excellent trait in a detective, one that will stand him in good stead personally if not professionally as a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse develops between the three protagonists with true love and an empire at stake. Even as questions are answered and mysteries resolved, there is the nagging innuendo that things are still not quite what they seemed to be. The veil is lifted only enough to tantalize.
Neil Burger, whose previous film, INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASIN, also delved into the state of delusion, self- and other, has captured the essence of what made the short story so intriguing, bringing it to the screen with some particulars changed but the ineffable qualities of surprise and wonder intact. The play of light and shadow infuses the film with Vienna’s fin-de-siecle melancholy that was the hallmark of the era’s zeitgeist. Somber hues bespeak both the workings of the subconscious and the nefarious deeds that constitute the corruption of absolute power, as well a yearning for the spiritual that the certainties of science cannot satisfy.
Playing across this landscape are vivid characters. Norton brings a ferocious intensity and passion to Eisenheim, as well as a soaring intelligence, the perfect foil for Sewell’s Leopold, equal in intensity, passion and smarts, but with an imperiousness that renders those qualities moot. Biel gives the best performance of her career to date, making Sophie regal and daring but not foolhardy, celebrating her passions without blindly surrendering to them. With all that it is easy to miss the cleverness of Giamatti’s performance. As the audience’s surrogate divining the plots and counter-plots of the other three, his Uhl takes it all in with sad, curious eyes in a perfect egg of a face, struggling between duty and his moral compass, as well as his enchantment with Eisenheim’s gifts that places the illusionist on a higher pedestal than even his royal patron.
THE ILLUSIONIST is wildly romantic, playfully profound, and a cipher with many sides, all equally alluring. An elegant exercise, it leaves just enough to the audience’s imagination to make it resonate long after the events of the story have played out.
Have an illusion to share with the world? Click here to enter it on THE ILLUSIONIST’s official web site and compete for a chance to have it included on the DVD release!