A gothic tale of stage magic that might be real magic, The Prestige (2006) is set mainly in late 19th Century London, based on a novel by Christopher Priest. We're shown a magician, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), in prison for allegedly tampering with a rival magician's equipment, resulting in his death. As soon the premise appears set, we go into the flashback to follow how & why that sorry end was reached.
Julia (Piper Perabo), the beloved of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), drowned during an escape trick. He believes the accident to have been the fault of Borden having tied the wrong knot. The friendship of these two up & coming stage magicians instantly sours, & their rivalry becomes thereafter bitter & dangerous.
In an act of vengeance, Angier used a pistol trick to damage Alfred's hand, thereby limiting the sort of magic he'll ever be able to perform. It then becomes Alfred's turn at revenge as he sabotoges a well designed trick that gets an audience volunteer injured, not the ideal way to bring in the crowds.
Eventually Alfred Borden develops a great trick, one that no one seems able to duplicate. Robert Angier has already decided that since Borden took his wife's life, then Angier will take any good trick his rival ever lights upon.
Angier is certain that Borden's "Transported Man" trick is done without a double. But he can duplicate it only with a double, one Mr. Root, an alcoholic actor who can pass for Angier on stage.
When Borden takes advantage of the unreliable Root to have Angier's version of the trick reveal itself in front of a full theater, Angier realizes he must uncover how the teleportating trick really functions.
Madness seems truly to underly the rival magicians' journey to achieve greatness in their stagecraft, & at the same time destroy any glimmer of greatness in their rival. They become truly like sword duelists who would each risk death for the chance to destroy the other, with each trimming away another piece of the other's humanity at each encounter, until both are capable of the most grievously inhuman acts.
John Cutter (Michael Caine) is a manufacturer of engineered magic tricks, bulky equipment typical of the age, but he cannot match Borden's equipment for the Transported Man. For this end, Angier consults Nichola Tesla (David Bowie, creating a wonderfully over the top portrait).
Tesla, out of need for cash to conduct his experiments, has agreed to build the ultimate transporter device to use as stage magic. This device is apparently an honest-to-shit teleport machine, but its workings turn out to be just a little more devious than intended.
The teleportation trick is no fraud, but it's ultimate secret is terrifying & grotesque. Its secret is apt to be grapsed by the viewer before the climax, but predicting the end doesn't matter, because the duplicity & catastrophe of the truth is in any case horrific to observe.
And with one more "trick" beyond the one expected, the movie delivers more than anyone could wish. A fine, fine film that submerges the viewer into a theatrical world of a past era, with great acting throughout to make the monstrousness of the actions & outcomes painfully convincing.
In a year that brought us such a convincing evocation of 19th Century stage magic in the tale of The Prestige, it seems hardly possible that a second film of equal merit & dark sincerity could exist on the same rarely approached subject.
But The Illusionist (2006) just might have been the best thriller about Victorian magic that had ever been filmed had it not been forced to share that honor in back-to-back releases.
The period tale set in Vienna is based on a short story by magic realist Steven Millhauser. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim the scowly inscrutible illusionist, arrested for "threats to the Empire" while performing his mediumistic stage act.
He's been obsessed with magic since he was a child of the artisan class, whose father made furniture. He fell in love with a girl of the royal class. They had to sneak about merely to be childhood playmates, & certainly could not be permitted their friendship into puberty.
Sophie & Edward had eventually to be parted by the barriers of class. He went out into the world making his living as a magician, returning to Vienna fifteen years later.
A police inspector (Paul Giamatti) persecutes him because, as an amateur conjurer himself, he desires Eisenheim's secrets. Eisenheim is also of interest to the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), as the prince is intrigued by conjurors. And the consort to the crown prince is Duchess Sophia Franchesa (Jessica Biel), the very person with whom Edward fell in love when a lad.
Prince Leopold prides himself in penetrating every mystery. When he cannot unravel the methods of Edward's magic, the prince begins to regard him as a foe, & so permits the Constable to persecute him.
This needless cruelty came about before ever the Prince suspected his own future princess loved the magician.
Forced to leave Vienna, Sophia decides to flee with him, despite her certainty that the prince would never cease to hunt them down, find them in time, & kill them.
This has developed as quite a thrilling, gloomy romance, but the film's not perfect. Stage magic might be assisted by camera tricks but when it is this obviously trick photography and CGI and not stage tricks at all, it destroys all sense of historical time & place.
In the course of the film we will get CGI birds, a CGI orange tree that grows instantly from a seed, CGI serving up mirror magic, even a CGI ghost. Just such illusions did exist on the Victorian stage, but are not recreated here. It's almost enough to destroy a good story, the FX imparting much the same response as having a story set in ancient Rome but the chariots are John Deer tractors.
Philip Glas fans will love the soundtrack but I found the music intrusive in its 1980s-ness.
Some of the lighting effects for indoor scenes are interesting, but in general the cinematography is mediocre, & the outdoor shots look so British television that it sometimes seems to be an historical mystery for Masterpiece Theater.
And when the prince kills Sophie & the inspector begins to put clues together, it really is, for too long a while, far too much a Masterpiece Theater piece.
Only when the story returns to the issue of what Eisenheim will next do does life return to the film. He purchases a run-down theater & boasted he would begin "prepairing for a new kind of show."
He begins conjuring ghosts & the public very much does not believe it is only a trick. With his "oriental" assistants he becomes feared throughout the country. The prince ordered him arrested as a fraud, pretending to supernatural powers; but the public adores him even more than they fear his dark powers, & the masses surround the police station.
The highlight of his act is the conjuring of the Duchess Franchessa, when the prince is in the audience, disguised, to see the manifestation of the woman he killed. When on the following night his act is interupted by police intent on his arrest, he vanishes in a most macabre & thrilling manner.
In time the inspector makes a moral choice to serve the law rather than just the prince, who is in consequence brought down, followed by the remarkable "unweaving" of a carefully woven fraud designed for a greater purpose than vengeance.
The ornate & demented lyricism of Steven Millhauser's original story is not lost in the transition to the screen, so it does not seem too much the trashy bodice-ripper it could've ended up, especially with the weak link in the casting, Jessica Biel never ceasing to be just a model for a cheezy paperback romance.
For all its flaws of uneven cinematography, reliance on CGI to fake rather than recreate stage magic, & the presence of Biel who is never Norton's acting equal -- I nevertheless loved this movie & especially Edward Norton's quietly maniacal performance therein.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl