The Prestige, Nov. 06


Two similar films played in theaters in the fall of 2006: The Prestige and The Illusionist. Both feature the mysterious lives of illusionists in turn-of-the-century Europe. Both are based on fictional literature. Both deliver rich premises and create imaginative stage illusions. But both have serious flaws.

The Prestige teaches us that every great magic trick consists of three acts: 1) The Pledge, where the magician shows us something ordinary; 2) The Turn, where the ordinary thing becomes extraordinary because it holds a secret; and 3) The Prestige, which delivers a surprise—and where whatever disappeared must come back.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a complicated high drama that plays on darkness and mystery and the hostile rivalry between two celebrated magicians. And whose random sequence is the signature of director Christopher Nolan, who brought us Batman Begins and Memento. The all-star cast includes Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, David Bowie, and Scarlett Johansson (is anybody else getting tired of her?). The film recreates London’s Golden Age of Magic, complete with intricate stage illusions that are ahead of their time, and a twisted story shrouded in secrets. Early on, a terrible event launches a trade-off of mutual revenge where the stakes are high and neither side has a conscience. The dark 128 minutes profiles two men whom we might find enchanting. But they exhaust us of all reasons to root for either of them, and eventually wear us down.

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist is about challenged love between a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and his childhood sweetheart Sophie (Jessica Biel). It also stars Paul Giamatti as the Chief Inspector determined to bring them down, and Rufus Sewell as the nasty Prince who claims Sophie as his own. The drama plays out against seductive scenery tinted in sepia brown, depicting old-world Vienna, while Eisenheim performs surprising illusions bordering on the metaphysical. The Illusionist seems promising. But its long repetitive sequence grows tedious. And as strong leading characters, both Norton and Biel fall short.

So what else could go wrong? The big problem these films share in common is a complex, implausible ending. Both are guilty of unraveling too many surprises in their final moments, which some of us have a hard time swallowing at all, never mind in one gasp. Each finale leaves a reality gap, which means that, in the end, these unsatisfying films do not meet their most important obligation. They fail to deliver the magic. The Prestige: C; The Illusionist: C