Home > Reviews > THE ILLUSIONIST – Philip Glass


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I make no secret of the fact that, for the most part, I’m not a huge fan of Philip Glass’s music. Over the years, scores such as Kundun, The Hours, and his ‘qatsi’ trilogy, which were all acclaimed by the mainstream music media, have generally left me cold and un-moved. His style of writing, the repeated rhythmic patterns, the micro-motifs, and the entrenched ‘minimalism’ just doesn’t appeal to my ear. As far as Philip Glass the composer is concerned, however, I gained a great deal of respect for him as a person when, several years ago, he began conducting a fascinating ‘experiment’ on himself by agreeing to score mainstream Hollywood studio movies – the Angelina Jolie thriller Taking Lives, the Stephen King adaptation Secret Window, and so on – simply to see whether he could do it or not. Whereas the contemporary classical music world tends to sneer at film music as being a lesser art form, Glass took the trouble to discover for himself just how difficult a job being a mainstream film composer can be, and in doing so endeared himself to many who have been arguing this very point for years – myself included. It perhaps comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that his latest effort is a very high-profile, mainstream studio picture: the elegant magical romantic adventure, The Illusionist.

Directed by Neil Burger and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell, The Illusionist takes place in the opulent surroundings of 19th century Vienna. Eisenheim (Norton) is a master magician, whose extravagant stage performances and flamboyant persona thrill the aristocracy of the time, to such an extent that some members of the public believe his magic to be real. However, Eisenheim has enemies – the most significant of which are Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell), heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian empire, and Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), head of the Viennese police. Intent on revealing him to be a charlatan, Leopold sends his wife-to-be, Princess Sophie (Biel), to pretend to be a volunteer at one of Eisenheim’s shows. Unbeknownst to Leopold, however, Sophie and Eisenheim have a torrid, romantic past. Meeting up again, years later, their passionate love affair reawakens, with serious repercussions for all…

The first track, unsurprisingly titled “The Illusionist”, gives the score something of a false dawn. It’s an absolutely spellbinding opening piece, in which a decadent bed of strings gives way to a deep, graceful cello passacaglia and a refined, elegant violin theme. It’s one part John Williams, one part Wojciech Kilar, one part Michael Nyman and one part Glass, and (in my case at least) caused me to sit up and take notice. Could this, finally, be the Philip Glass score which blows me away with thematic beauty? Sadly not, and although on the whole The Illusionist does have several other excellent moments of lyricism and grace, far too often it reverts back to the churning, repetitive Glass style which has alienated me for years.

The good moments include the arrestingly arrhythmic opening to “Do You Know Me?”, which offsets elephantine trombones against a twittering woodwind effect and rumbling percussion; the enchanting, romantic piano and woodwind theme at the end of “Chance Encounter”; the restatement of the opening motif in “The Orange Tree”; the clever harp element in “The Mirror”; the oddly mesmerising percussion collision towards the end of “Sophie’s Ride To The Castle”; the dramatic and tense “A Shout from the Crowd”; the relentlessly fluid “The Search”; and hopeful new theme and superb restatement of the main thematic material in the finale, “Life in the Mountains”.

Most of the rest of the time, though, I found myself wishing the score would do something else. Part of the problem, for me at least, is the fact that I have never truly appreciated Glass’s style of writing, with its dense orchestration, endlessly repeated motifs, microtonal key shifts and staccato rhythmic centre. At its core, The Illusionist has all the trademarks of a classic Glass work – Mishima, or Kundun, or Koyaanisqatsi. Many of the middle-album cues, from “Meeting in the Carriage” through to “Frankel Appears” tend to coagulate together in a relentlessly undulating, monotone mush which threatens to undermine the strength of other parts of the album, and certainly makes waiting for the admittedly rather good finale something of a slog.

In a way, The Illusionist is simultaneously Philip Glass’s most accessible and frustrating work – on many, many occasions it gives a tantalising glimpse of the kind of amazingly beautiful work he is capable of writing, without ever fully embracing them, and even shows that he could write some decent action music. He never pushes the envelope enough in any one area. I fully understand that Glass is Glass, and he’ll never be anyone else, and so anyone who appreciates him or any of these other referenced works will likely find this score to their taste. The Illusionist is a score written very much in Glass’s comfort zone, which fans of his will adore, but which I found just slightly infuriating.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • The Illusionist (2:24)
  • Do You Know Me? (2:48)
  • Chance Encounter (3:23)
  • The Locket (2:54)
  • The Orange Tree (1:47)
  • The Mirror (1:27)
  • Wish I Would See You Again (1:26)
  • The Sword (0:36)
  • Meeting In The Carriage (1:09)
  • Sophie (2:50)
  • The Secret Plot (2:53)
  • Sophie’s Ride To The Castle (2:05)
  • The Accident (1:30)
  • The New Theater (1:39)
  • Frankel Appears (3:26)
  • A Shout From The Crowd (2:02)
  • Eisenheim Disappears (2:07)
  • The Search (3:00)
  • The Missing Gem (3:03)
  • The Chase (4:11)
  • Life In The Mountains (4:31)

Running Time: 51 minutes 22 seconds

Rykodisc RCD-10884 (2006)

Music composed by Philip Glass. Conducted by Michael Riesman. Performed by The Czech Film Orchestra. Recorded and mixed by Milan Jílek and Michael Riesman. Album produced by Philip Glass and Kurt Munkacsi.

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