01/12/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Toward the end of the 19th century two rival stage magicians compete and battle for dominance. This is a thriller, says Mark, an education in stage magic, a mystery, and even a bit of a science fiction film. Christopher Priest's novel is brought to the screen by co-writer and director Christopher Nolan in a wonderful screen adaptation. This is a film that may be more enjoyable on the second viewing once you know its secrets.
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
"Are you watching closely?"
In London near the end of the 19th Century two stage magicians, once friends, carry on a deadly rivalry. The cause is professional competition and an escalating ladder of revenge for believed wrongs. At the centre of the controversy is one stage illusion and the attempts to perform it. The trick gives the illusion that the performer is instantly transported from the stage to another part of the theatre (like something from THE FLY).
The film is told in flashback after the death of one of the feuding magicians, Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman), apparently murdered by his nemesis Alfred Borden (very effectively played by Christian Bale).
The film then traces the relationship of these two one-time friends and concurrent apprentices to a veteran illusionist Milton (a cameo by Ricky Jay) and his designer called just Cutter (Michael Caine). With reckless ambition Borden is convinced, somewhat justifiably, that he is a great magician. Then perhaps unintentionally in one quick stroke he destroys Angier's life and Milton's career.
From there an epic feud starts. Angier is suave and looks really good in front of an audience, but he is second rate at inventing new illusions. Borden is brilliant but lacks the panache to exploit it. Between them they could make the perfect stage illusionist. Instead they want each other out of the way, but even more than that they want the secret of each other's tricks.
The feud will embroil the stage assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) who will be the confidante to both men consecutively. It will also involve a real wizard--not one of fiction--the great engineer Nikola Tesla (played with surprising Eastern European charm by David Bowie), who may have his own electrical magic, and who is himself involved in a historic parallel feud with Thomas Alva Edison.
The hostility between Angier and Borden, a study in obsession, will be dangerous to both. The life of a stage illusionist often ends in sudden death. The tightness of a knot or the placement of a prop can mean the difference between life and death. A button falling into the wrong place can be deadly. Another magician can turn a stage performance into an undetectable murder. And the coveted secrets of tricks can be the motive for murder. A magician's audience can be unaware that they are witnessing a deadly battle.
"Are you watching closely?"
Through some of the script may seem to be only slowly advancing the plot, that is part of the illusion. Between Christopher Priest's plot from the novel and Jonathan and Christopher Nolan's adaptation, little if anything is wasted in the plot or dialog. On a second viewing many of the lines of dialog will take on whole new meanings. A second viewing may well be a very different experience than a first viewing. As a bonus, along the way this film is as much an education about the stagecraft of legerdemain as MASTER AND COMMANDER was of early 19th century seafaring.
Two films on the subject of late 19th century stage magic being released only weeks-apart invites comparison. The film THE ILLUSIONIST also deals with stage magic about the same period. THE PRESTIGE is a somewhat longer film, but it is considerably more intricate and more satisfying. THE PRESTIGE is taken from a very good book, but where the Nolan brothers have deviated from the book they have worked their own magic. Both films include plot elements that were impossible for the period. THE PRESTIGE is honest in its fantasy elements and THE ILLUSIONIST is not. I thing that gives THE PRESTIGE another edge. I recommended THE ILLUSIONIST a few weeks ago, and I still do, but in many respects it pales next to THE PRESTIGE.
I rate this complex and clever puzzle story a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper