We’re looking at The Prestige and The Illusionist this month, two films with fairly similar high level plots but very different executions as they explore rivalry, love, and obsession through the world of illusion. And we don’t mean the old Megadrive game.
Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser entitled “Eisenheim the Illusionist”, The Illusionist takes us to fin de siecle Vienna, where Eduard Abramovich, the son of a cabinet maker, falls in love with a girl named Sophie, who just happens to be a member of the Hapsburg nobility. Being a duchess as she is, she is his “social superior”, and the two young people are not allowed to be together, eventually being separated, first by force, and then by distance, and finally by time.
Abramovich then travels the world, studying magic, illusion and mysticism, until, 15 years later, he returns to Vienna as a stage magician, now going by the name of Eisenheim, and looking like Edward Norton. After his prodigious skill becomes the talk of the city, he attracts the crown-prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his retinue to one of his performances. Amongst this group is Sophie, all grown-up and, it is rumoured, soon to be wed to Leopold.
Eisenheim impresses the prince, and is invited to the palace to give a private performance for Leopold and his guests. He takes the opportunity to humiliate Leopold, a move which at first seems dangerously foolhardy, but turns out to be just one step in a scheme to frame Leopold for murder and allow the two lovers to escape together.
In amongst this is Paul Giamatti’s Inspector Uhl, an ambitious police detective on the make, who, as well as providing Eisenheim’s back story through an unwelcome and clunkily written narration, investigates Eisenheim on the prince’s behalf, and attempts to have him punished after his new necromancy show raises seditious questions about the prince’s part in Sophie’s purported murder. Eisenheim and his co-conspirators raise sufficient doubts in the inspector’s mind that he begins to suspect Leopold, and he eventually confronts him, which results, rather dramatically, in the crown-prince taking his own life.
First, the good – the film looks appealing, the costumes in particular being of high quality, and the exteriors of Tabor and Prague, standing in for Vienna, give the setting an authentic period feel. Norton is an engaging presence, even if he is never particularly stretched. Likewise Giamatti – while he can do this sort of role in his sleep, he gives the sort of professional and dependable performance that we can always expect from him as a bare minimum. Rufus Sewell is pretty good too – perhaps stretched a little in some of the more impassioned moments, he’s nevertheless very watchable, particularly when you add his bizarrely affected manner of smoking cigarettes.
On the downside, the film isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is. A film called The Illusionist was always going to have some sort of magic trick twist, but when Eisenheim is set up as being so smart and so observant, it’s asking a bit much for the audience to simply accept that he is unaware that he is being followed, and overheard, by detectives and imperial agents. This flaw is compounded by the fact that he is straight-up told by Uhl that he is being watched. As a result, we can be in little doubt that all is not as it seems when the Duchess is found “murdered”. Add to this the convenience of crucial pieces of “evidence” being found in an imperial stable that has apparently not been cleaned, or had its straw changed, in several months, and the crime element falls rather flat.
Alongside the aforementioned voiceover (and, talking of voices, there’s an entirely scattershot approach to which members of the cast attempt an Austrian accent, and which think that the Hapsburg’s ruled from England), Jessica Biel’s role as Sophie, complicit as she is in the plot, is largely reduced to damsel in distress as she has, and perhaps because of the time and place, very little agency.
The score, which I don’t remember even really noticing, was by sonic sadist Philip Glass, though the commission must have caught him in a period of kindness because I don’t recall my ears bleeding as a result of his usual auditory warfare.
All in all, it’s a slight, if well-produced, piece of entertaining fluff that can provide a couple of hours of mild entertainment, but is never going to instill any real magic in the audience.
So, there’s these two magicians with a long standing, deadly rivalry, yeah? Paul Daniels and the fat bloke that used to be married to Victoria Wood. You know the guy. Shows up on Countdown every now and again. They’re locked in a deadly battle for supremacy and ultimate mastery. This film is not about them. There’s another two magicians with a long standing, deadly rivalry, David Copperfield and David Blaine, locked in an eternal struggle to be the most irritating illusionist named David. This titanic battle, no matter how enduring and delicately balanced, is also not the concern of this film. This film’s about Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman).
We’re introduced to Angier and Borden as what amounts, I suppose, to apprentice magicians, working as audience plants, stooges and technical gophers for a stage magician to whom Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) fulfils the Debbie McGee role. One stunt involves the miraculous escape of a rope bound Julia from a tank of water, slightly less miraculous once one knows that the knots are tied by two entirely arbitrarily chosen members of the audience that always happen to be Borden and Angier. Things are swell for all of four minutes before Julia and Borden decide to do a bit of experimentation in knot selection, which goes rather fatally wrong for Julia.
Angier chooses not to see this as a simple accident, leading the two to become increasingly obsessive thorns in each other’s side until, in one of the opening scenes thanks to the never-ending joys (read: ended some considerable time ago) of fractured narrative, we find that Borden has been sentenced to hang by the neck until he be dead for the murder of one Robert Angier.
In broad strokes, the pair’s rivalry continues and escalates throughout their burgeoning careers, coming to a head once Borden unveils his masterwork – the Disappearing Man. However, rather like the illusions our magical protagonists perform, once you know the tricks they stop impressing so allow me to veil the plot details in smoke and mirrors. Note that thanks to my cunning misdirection and slight of hand, you now think my abject laziness is in fact consideration for an audience. That’s me alright, always learnin’.
Now, our views on Christian Bale have been made clear many times in the past around these parts, namely that you could put him in an empty room and have him improvise a script on the importance of cod to the national diet and we’d happily stump up the dollarpounds to see it. Boringly, it’s yet another superb performance from the man, showing Borden’s transition from surly technician to flamboyant showman with captivating style.
In fact both he and a Hugh Jackman back on form after perfunctory turns in the criminally non-interesting X-Men 3 and Van Helsing perform superbly in the difficult task of making a rivalry between two at best objectionable, often downright nasty characters compelling and, more remarkably, allowing us to empathise with them. Support from both Rebecca Hall as Borden’s wife and the ever impressive Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s beautiful assistant is able, although their true purpose is really to give Jackman and Bale something to bounce against. More substantial is that mighty being Michael Caine’s role as Cutter, creator and engineer of arcane magicks, or the seeming thereof, and he performs the statutory bang-up job you’d expect from him.
It’s not all cupcakes and Jesus Juice. The plot development that bring in legendary boffin Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) into the equation further develop into something that stretches credulity a yard too far, and much as I hold Davey Boy in idolisation as some sort of wonky-eyed music God, this film and particularly that accent really aren’t playing to his strengths. While we’re being negative, the only other rain I can add to this parade is that it’s somewhat over-long, in common with seemingly every other film this year. In the case of The Pink Panther, at least ninety minutes too long.
Back to the glowing reports. The production design is utterly fantastic, full of ornate Victorian theatres, grimy London streets, Heath Robinson contraptions (many involving arcing electricity, which is never less than awesome) and most importantly of all, fetching headware. The hats maketh the film, as I always say. Chris Nolan’s direction has the steady, assured markings of a director who knows when the story and acting is more than strong enough to carry a scene without superfluous flourishes, which has the welcome side effect of giving Tesla’s gadgetry a grandiose visual motif that wouldn’t otherwise have been quite so impressive.
Nolan’s typical dark style fits well with a world based entirely on secrets, deception and treachery, and barring the slight runtime issues, in part caused by an over-explained ending where Angier’s final trick is given the needlessly lengthy Basil Exposition treatment, there’s few bone-handled pickaxes to grind with this intriguing film. It has the laudable attribute of attempting something vastly different from nigh-on every other film by actually creating an atmosphere and telling a story thoroughly divergent from the torrents of homogenous drivel that’s threatened to overwhelm us of late.
It’s strange to think the a film as good as The Prestige, which would surely be a highlight in most director’s canons, could wind up being a relatively minor work in Chris Nolan’s. I rate this very highly, but it can’t match the perfect storm of pop culture dominance and, admittedly, amazing quality of the Batman series or Inception. It’s a terrific yarn, and I recommend it highly.
Right, that’s your lot. Find your hook and sling it.
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