Two movies hit the theaters in 2006, both of them period dramas, and both exploring the subject of magic, magicians, and illusion. One was called The Illusionist. The other was The Prestige. But even though The Prestige starred two of my favorite actors — Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale — and The Illusionist starred Edward Norton, who was unknown to me at the time, I bought The Illusionist, but never had a desire to see The Prestige again.
While The Illusionist probes the secrets of life and death, space and time, fate and chance, and what it means to be mortal, along with the human fascination for proof of life after death, The Prestige focuses on the practical science behind the “magic”, but searches and longs for something more illusive. The difference is that the one keeps its viewers deeply involved, while the other has impulsive and bewildering scene changes.
Furthermore, between Edward Norton’s quietly intense, mesmerizing performance as Eisenheim, and the mysterious rise and fall of the Paul Glass score in The Illusionist, the last vestiges of this world meld seamlessly into the world of 1889 Vienna in Austria-Hungary.
On the other hand, the quixotic friendship/rivalry of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), keeps those characters at arm’s length, with the viewer never quite being able to “bond” with either of them. The spastic quality of The Prestige makes it hard to follow, and even harder to care about. Sometimes, at the theater, I considered going for popcorn. I couldn’t be any less confused if I missed five minutes.
The Illusionist holds out the question of “is it magic or merely illusion”, to the very end, while The Prestige keeps the viewer so befuddled he no longer cares where it’s going. The only exception I’ve seen is this one reviewer who insists that confusion is art. Fine. He can have it. He also insists that the movie allows the viewer to fill in the blanks. Sheesh. If I wanted to write the script I’d stay home and save the cost of a ticket.
In The Illusionist, Eisenheim’s first performance in Vienna plays to a packed theater. The on-stage monologue as he introduces a never-before-seen illusion to his new audience, is riveting. While tossing an orange lazily back and forth, he talks about time:
From the moment we enter this life we measure it, we mark it, but we cannot defy it. We cannot speed it up, or slow it down. Or can we? Have we not each experienced the sensation that a beautiful moment seems to pass too quickly . . . (the orange plummets from high to low from one hand to the other) . . . and wished that we could make it linger? (The orange drops again, but as the audience gasps, it wafts slowly downward). Or felt time slow on a dull day , and wished that we could speed things up a bit?
He slices the orange and removes a single seed, placing it into a vase. In a moment, a slim green stalk rises over the lip of the vessel, growing increasingly taller. Green leaves sprout. A tree forms. Fruit appears. He picks an orange from off the tree and tosses it into the audience. There is a collective gasp, and a look of incredulous wonder passes over the face of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giomatti), who determines to investigate this mysterious and sensational newcomer.
But it happens that the ambitious Inspector Uhl is under the thumb of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who reigns on a hotbed of royal intrigue and murder. Yet, though Leopold holds out the promise of a higher social status for the low-born detective, in the end Uhl must choose between ambition and betrayal, between patriotism and treason, and between his conscience and his duty.
On the other hand, Eisenheim must watch his childhood sweetheart fall into the hands of the vain prince, who is barely one brain cell shy of a psychopath. Leopold invites Eisenheim to perform at the palace, but throws down the challenge that he will gather all his best minds to unmask the conjurer’s deceptions. Eisenheim bows.
“Then I’ll prepare something special,” he says. “Perhaps I’ll make you disappear.”
Here is a link to an excellent review with a little different, but enjoyable flavor. Enjoy. http://www.moviesmackdown.com/2009/01/prestige-vs-illusionist.html