Harry Potter’s not the only guy out there on film who knows his way around a wand. Just so you know…
Over the hundred-plus years of cinematic history, there has been enough movie magic to create a worldwide love affair with film. Surprisingly, however, since the laterna magica first began projecting moving images, there have been remarkably few movies about magic.
The year 2006 was an exception, with the near-simultaneous release of two excellent films about 19th century professional prestidigitators — The Illusionist and The Prestige. For someone who loves magic and sleight of hand, this was a banner year worth sharing. While The Prestige made more money at the domestic box-office, approximately $53 million vs. $40 million, The Illusionist cost considerably less to make — $16.5 million vs. $39 million. Based on their return on investment, and the fact that The Illusionist was also the first to appear on the nation’s screens in 2006, we’ll give The Illusionist the designation of “Defending Champion,” and The Prestige our “Challenger” position. Now that our rivals are in their respective corners, let’s get out the wands and let the magic begin.
According to Webster’s New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, the word prestige is “a noun that means a delusion, an illusion, a juggler’s trick, from praestinguere, to darken, to obscure.” Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, director Christopher Nolan’s film certainly possesses those characteristics, but it is much, much more. The Prestige is a brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed character study concerning two rival magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, who are obsessed with outdoing one another in shadowy, gas-lit Victorian England. What started out as friendly competition becomes a bitter rivalry full of jealousy, obsession, and deceit with the death of Angiers’ wife (the wonderful Piper Perabo) during the performance of a dangerous trick known as “The Tortured Man.” The result is that Angier becomes just that, tortured, a borderline sociopath who becomes obsessed in finding the secret behind Borden’s piece de resistance in his new, wildly successful show.
The screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan is so rich in texture that it succeeds in being part murder mystery, part drama, part suspense, part fantasy, and part science fiction all at once. Abracadabra! Even Houdini couldn’t have pulled this rabbit out of a hat. And just as you would expect from a world-class magician, The Prestige is clever, tricky and deceitful. Be advised that many of the magical moments are not unveiled in a straightforward chronology. Somewhat reminiscent of Nolan’s excellent psychological thriller Memento, the storytelling is presented in a fragmented, palimpsestic manner, once again making audiences have to pay attention and to actually think. This can be a very effective technique, but it is one that is almost verboten in today’s Hollywood.
Helping to keep things moving smoothly is a superb cast that is uniformly excellent. Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier, a natural showman who oozes charisma and stage presence. Christian Bale is his nemesis, Alfred Borden, the born magician who is totally dedicated to his craft. Both performances are top notch. The same is true for Michael Caine as the ingeneur, the master designer of elaborate stage illusions who both men turn to at one time or another. Scarlett Johansson portrays Olivia, Angier’s new assistant who is sent to seduce his rival and uncover the secret of his latest and greatest trick, The Disappearing Man. Ms. Johansson may not be the best actress in the world, but who cares? Not me. And while David Bowie may be a surprise choice for the part of Nikola Tesla, he more than holds his own. Special mention should also go to cinematographer Wally Pfister who keeps the hocus-pocus in focus and to production designer Nathan Crowley who especially stands out among all who helped give The Prestige outstanding production values.
The Defending Champion
Adapted for the screen from a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist is also a beautifully crafted motion picture. Edward Norton’s trademark intensity works to his advantage in his portrayal of the mysterous Eisenheim, a master illusionist who has risen to become the greatest magician in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eisenheim’s magic tricks not only evoke a sense of wonder, they also seem to embody the ambiguities and the uncertainties of a new century. Each sell-out performance brings more fame and fortune, but these rewards are of little consequence to him. What Eisenheim wants most is to win the love of the luscious Dutchess Sophie von Teschen, portrayed by the absolutely stunning Jessica Biel in one of her best performances to date.
Standing in Eisenheim’s way is the powerful, corrupt Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). He is a worthy adversary. Where The Prestige is about obsession and revenge, The Illusionist is about love. The real star of this film, however, is the incomparable Paul Giamatti, who serves as the guide and narrator while playing the part of Chief Inspector Uhl. Is there a better supporting actor working today? What makes The Illusionist unique is Screenwriter/Director Neil Burger’s carefully orchestrated cat-and-mouse game between the illusionist and the police officer. Each of these men are extremely clever and likable; we cannot help but root for both in equal measure. To have the audience equally embrace both characters is a significant accomplishment that few other movies have attempted, much less achieved.
This was Burger’s second film — Interview With The Assassin was his first — and he demonstrates remarkable skill throughout. Of course, a great cast and crew helps, and special mention must go to cinematographer Dick Pope who was nominated for an Academy Award, deservedly so, and to the production design by Ondrej Nekvasil who brings to life the Vienna of Sigmund Freud. For the record, Prague was a terrific substitute for Austria, showing yet again what highly talented filmmakers can accomplish with a relatively low budget. And last, but by no means least, I found Philip Glass’s score to be perfect; proving, yet again, why he is one of today’s top composers.
Both of these films are extremely well written and well produced. As a result, there are literally dozens of scenes in each which stand out. For The Illusionist, the fabulous magic tricks performed by Eisenheim will amaze today’s audiences just as they did at the end of the Victorian era. We see an orange tree sprout from a pot of dirt to full-grown status in mere minutes. We see red balls stay suspended in mid-air, their flight of fancy paving the way for two silver butterflies who return a borrowed handkerchief to the stage on gossamer wings. And when Sophie’s ghost materializes from a gray mist, we are challenged to rethink our attitude towards supernatural forces and the nature of the mind. This was, as you will recall, Freud’s city, and The Illusionist captures the deep-rooted, sexual obsession which permeated that particular time and place, and it does so without ever mentioning his name.
In The Prestige, a voice asks at the very beginning, “Are you watching?” This question, like almost everything else which follows, is a calculated piece of misdirection. It is a provocative film containing many small gems of surprise, discovery and sheer entertainment. For example, the scenes featuring Bowie as the enigmatic genius Nikola Tesla are especially entertaining and visually stunning, and delightfully so, subtle as well. When some very dangerous men appear at the hotel near Tesla’s laboratory, a character asks if they work for the government. “Worse. They work for Edison.” It’s a marvelous sly reference to the bitter rivalry between the Wizard of Menlo Park and the true genius — the electrifying Wizard from Smiljan who ultimately won the “Battle of the Currents” and did so without publicly electrocuting elephants and small dogs. In the final analysis, these are two excellent movies, both about magic, illusions, and the “dark arts.”
Although both films are very similar in many respects, they’re not the same. The Prestige combines intrigue, mystery, and murder with an underlying meditation on the seduction of power. The Illusionist, on the other hand, focuses on the power of seduction.
Both films credit Ricky Jay, one of the world’s most accomplished sleight-of-hand performers, as well as a respected historian in the field of magic, with being a “Technical Advisor — Magic.” However, the producers of The Illusionist have stressed that under Ricky Jay’s expert guidance, many of the illusions in their film are “real” (or as real as magic gets) and were done without the aid of studio special effects wizards or computers. In fact, the producers further claim that all the tricks shown on screen are period-accurate and authentic to the last detail. This level of authenticity tips the scale — the winner is The Illusionist in as close a decision as is possible outside the state of Minnesota.