The Prestige, The Illusionist & the great era of magic

Hollywood tends to think up wheezes then exploit them to death.  One studio gets an idea and starts to make a movie about it, then all the rest jump on the bandwagon and make their own story on the same theme.  Remember there was a rush of movies about twins, several about men waking up to find they were children again, volcano movies, two about Truman Capote, animations about insects, films about the earth being destroyed by asteroids, you name it – the list is endless.  Rather than listing them, see here and here for a fair number of examples.

On the latter list you will see The Prestige and The Illusionist mentioned, being both period thrillers made about magic and/or conjurors, both launched in 2006, both with excellent casts, superb production values and fine screenplays.  They also both harbour neat twists worthy of the magicians concerned.  If I quote the piece on, you’ll see what I mean:

“The Illusionist” (September 1, 2006) and “The Prestige” (October 20, 2006) – Two critically-acclaimed period pieces, set in Europe, that explore the world of seemingly-supernatural magic and it’s role in life-or-death rivalries.

Critical success. “The Illusionist” got a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. “The Prestige” got a 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and two Oscar nominations – one for art direction, one for cinematography. (Both lost the cinematography category to “Pan’s Labyrinth” by the way.)

Commercial success. “The Illusionist” made $39.8 million, “The Prestige” made $53 million, so neither was any kind of real huge box office success.

Biggest difference. While both seem to feature supernatural magic, only “The Prestige” actually does — when Hugh Jackman‘s magician character meets Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) and uses a machine he created to do actual teleportation. (Or, at least, matter replication. Or something. I was half-asleep when I watched both of these.)

Winner? I saw both of these movies about two years ago and the only one that really stuck with me was “The Prestige”… I remembered the twist, the magic and the whole strange Tesla angle. Also, “The Illusionist” is one of those films from the phoning-it-in period of Ed Norton’s career.

I saw Prestige before Illusionist (dispensing with the respective definite articles), found both beguiling and entertaining in equal measure, and believed that unlike other me-too movies these were both worth making in their own right, not least because they concern a fascinating topic, or certainly one that always fascinated me.

If you read a stupendously good book about the golden era of magic, Hiding The Elephant: how magicians invented the impossible by Jim Steinmeyer, you’ll see what I mean.  The turn of the century was the era of the big illusion, with audiences falling over themselves to be amazed, and the great performers of the day falling over themselves to perfect the greatest illusion of all, attempting to steal one another’s secrets and to advance the art beyond all recognition.  For the same reasons I’d heartily recommend a novel about the same era, Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold.

Prestige mirrors the rivalry of the era, being a series of mind games conducted by Jackman’s Robert Angier (“the Great Danton”) and Christian Bale‘s Alfred Borden, albeit delving strangely into the electric world of Tesla along the way.  The inclusion of class acts like Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson exemplifies this to be a strong fable with elements of mysticism.

Illusionist is more a battle of wills between Eisenheim and Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) over the affections of Jessica Biel‘s Sophie, Duchess von Teschen.  Both have their moments of being conventional storylines with a well-realised period setting, though in the interests of magic and intrigue they both spill over into the dark unknown, which for movies on the theme of magic is entirely appropriate; if you could believe all you saw at face value, the romance would be gone!

Where I disagree with the assessment on is about Edward Norton in Illusionist.  I felt his brooding presence quite compelling.  Not a character to wear his heart on his sleeve, but unquestionably more going on in his head than he ever reveals – until Chief Inspector Uhl (the wonderful Paul Giametti) figures out what has happened and breaks into a broad grin.  Norton held my attention throughout, which is certainly one reason why Illusionist holds a small edge over Prestige for me.

You may think differently, but both will certainly keep you watching right to the end.  I’m thoroughly convinced both movies stand watching more than once, and how often can you say that these days?

I’m not revealing any spoilers here, so you’ll have to find out by watching both movies and judging for yourself!  However, as a parting shot to Hollywood studios – stop copying and start using imagination.  Time to make movies based on the quality of the script rather than which themes are “in” this year!

PS.  More on the great era of magic here.  Houdini, according to Steinmeyer’s book, was a great magician but a lousy showman, a line stolen in The Prestige!

PPS.  Apparently this trend has not yet ended – see here.

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