The autumn of 2006 was a veritable golden age for fans of films about Victorian stage magicians. This was inspired, perhaps, by some unknown water additive consumed by two separate production companies, leading the to develop two films about the subject with a post-M. Night Shyamalan sensibility. Like the stories contained within the films, the two pictures themselves were rivals, and also like in the films, one of the two was hopelessly outmatched.
The first of these, released in September, was The Illusionist. Instead of a heated rivalry between fellow magicians, this "poor man's" Victorian magic story provides yet another story about class warfare, but with a disappointing pseudo-Shyamalanian twist provided by the titular emphasis on illusion and magic.
The film opens with the young son of a carpenter with a bent for slight of hand who falls in love with the young daughter of an aristocrat. Planning to run off together, the two are found out and forbidden from ever seeing each other again. Years and years later, the son - now the great Eisenheim the Illusionist (played by Edward Norton) - returns to Vienna and rekindles his romance with Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), who happens to be betrothed to the villainous and abusive Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Investigated by perhaps the only really competently acted and sympathetic character in the whole picture, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the star-cross'd lovers hatch a plan that they hope will see them escape the regimented world of Austro-Hungarian society for the green, soft-focused log cabins of the Alps.
It may not be possible to over-criticize The Illusionist for its reliance on an overdone premise. Not only did it have its competition to contend with, but it also had the grand tradition of Victorian literature which dealt with the issue of class and conflict with much more nuance and immediacy than did this picture a century after the fact. At this point, we are left with it's ultimate and crudest distillation, where of course the aristocrat has to be a drunk and a jerk, simply because he's an aristocrat. This is beyond the crime of horrible CGI at least 10 years behind its time.
The far more competent of the two films was released in October, debuting and then trouncing The Illusionist with many positive reviews and two Oscar nominations (for art direction and cinematography). Adapted and directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight fame, The Prestige brought Christopher Priest's novel of the same name to the screen in spectacularly fascinating and star-studded fashion.
Where The Illusionist attempts a Shyamalanian turn that doesn't really deliver anything you weren't expecting from the beginning, The Prestige twists it triumphantly... In fact, it's so remarkable that it makes a proper review of the film frustratingly impossible. There is a richness in the most critical theme of the film that one simply cannot discuss without giving away the ending. And as we all know, you're never supposed to reveal the secret to a magic trick.
What we can reveal is this: showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), natural magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine) are all assistants working under Milton the Magician (played by real-life magician Ricky Jay) when Borden's ambition to do riskier and more exciting tricks results in the drowning of Angier's escapist wife. Going their separate ways, the two begin escalating both their professional and personal vendetta, costing each other theatrical runs and limbs. The rivalry enters its final stage when Borden develops a shocking trick that completely stumps the team of Angier and Cutter: The Teleporting Man. In this trick, Borden sets a ball bouncing across the stage and enters a cabinet. Instantly he reappears from another cabinet at the far end of the stage and catches the ball. With no apparent means of pulling the trick off, Angier is desperate to solve the riddle. He develops his own variation using a double - The New Teleporting Man - but is still not satisfied. After sending his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to spy on Borden for him, Angier's quest eventually leads him to a real miracle-worker... The elusive scientist Nikola Tesla.
A much-preferred story about the costs of revenge and obsession runs circles around another dry story about class warfare, but even when The Prestige does explore themes of class between the wealthy Angier and the working-class Borden, it is subtle and well-done. Their morality is ambiguous, their motivations complex, and overall they act something like how one might expect real human beings to act. Where Leopold is a jerk because he is an aristocrat and that's what they do, Angier is driven to cruelty by the most profound grief. Whether by incident or design, Jackman as the stage showman does act circles around the stolid Bale. An excellent performance is also put in by Caine, and Tesla's secretive persona is given exceptionally by the otherworldly and indomitable David Bowie.
Johansson, like Bale, more or less puts in time as the assistant Olivia, but ultimately her character isn't as important. In fact, one of the things that hurt The Prestige somewhat is misrepresentional advertising. Many reviews and taglines portrayed the film as two rival magicians vying for the affections of Johansson, which frankly couldn't be further from the truth. Few mentioned Bowie's Tesla and the mad science that would naturally follow.
Like Eisenheim to Leopold or Borden to Angier, The Prestige simply outmatches The Illusionist at every turn, including the big turn at the end. And of the two, The Prestige is well worth your time while The Illusionist is that boring dinner buffet magician whose tricks have all been done before.