Jun 16, 2021
Movie Duel: The Illusionist vs. The Prestige
Our latest installment of Movie Duels takes us back to the hoary years of 2006, when we got two movies about stage magicians in the late nineteenth slash early twentieth centuries.
Now, it’s no surprise why magic shows were popular in that particular era. It was a time of rapid social upheaval caused by the technological developments of the second phase of the Industrial Revolution. Every day brought new impossible marvels: swift vehicles powered by burning oil, lights that shone brighter than any candle, and electric wires that enabled messages to travel faster than any messenger could. These developments were raising the average person’s standard of living, but at the same time catapulting their lives away from their previous agrarian rhythms into a colder, more mechanized existence. People watched magic tricks because they craved the unknown and the unexplained. They wanted to know there was still a beating heart of mystery and sublimity beneath all these cogs and wires.
What’s a trickier question is why this era was so appealing to people in 2006. It’s not just these movies: the mid-2000s saw a huge surge of interest in turn-of-the-century history and aesthetics. This was the age of steampunk, and semi-ironic appreciation for the works of Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; a time when you occasionally saw waistcoats, bustles, and pocket watches in the wild, internet culture made folk heroes of Teddy Roosevelt and Nikola Tesla (the latter of whom makes an appearance in The Prestige), and it seemed like every young man’s avi was a sepia-toned photograph of a fellow with a badass handlebar mustache. My best guess is that there’s some historical synchronicity at play: like the 1890s, our world today is beset by massive sociological tidal forces springing from a technological revolution that leaves scarcely any facet of everyday life unaffected.
Both The Prestige and The Illusionist feature ambitious performers who use magic as a means to settle grudges that are both professional in nature and bound up in their own ill-fated love affairs. In The Illusionist, an Austrian peasant boy falls in love with a teenaged duchess named Sophie, only to be separated by force when their cross-class romance is discovered; he travels the world for many years, reinvents himself as the great magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton), and returns to find his former lover (Jessica Biel) engaged to crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).
The prince, who’s marrying Sophie in an effort to consolidate power and eventually overthrow his own father, distrusts Eisenheim’s designs on Sophie, particularly after a private performance for the imperial family in which Eisenheim effortlessly humiliates Leopold. He recruits Vienna’s police chief Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to surveil and harass Eisenheim. Uhl, a man of humble birth himself, is reluctant to satisfy the maniacal prince’s whims, but does so in pursuit of his own political ambitions. The persecution only intensifies when Sophie tries to break off the engagement, Leopold kills her, and Eisenheim begins putting on public seances and conjuring spirits who claim to know something horrible about the prince, including Sophie herself.
It’s a very political story. The Prestige is also political, in its own way, but its politics are showbiz politics, and its power more capitalistic and commercial in nature. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play two young stagehands, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, working for a doddering old magician, hungry to escape their hidebound boss and start their own magic careers. Where Borden is an intuitively gifted illusionist, he has no showmanship, while Angier has less practical skill but more charisma and performing ability. The two friends become bitter enemies when Angier’s wife, who also works for the magic show, accidentally drowns in a water tank during an escape trick, which may or may not be due to Borden tying the wrong kind of knot (Borden himself isn’t sure whether he tied the right kind of knot, for reasons that will become clear after the big twist). The rest of the movie has the two men locked in an increasingly dirty feud, trying to sabotage each other’s magic acts, one-upping one another’s tricks, figuratively and literally crippling each other, and eventually going to legendary science wizard Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) in hopes of building a machine that will perform “real magic”, which proves to be their Faustian downfall.
Ah yes, I did mention the word “twist”. Well, befitting their subject matter, both The Prestige and The Illusionist have a plot told largely in flashbacks, the better to twist and turn and parcel out information that recontextualizes what you’re seeing in a way that confounds the now-customary practice of spoiler warnings. I don’t really believe in spoiler warnings myself, but it feels sacrilegious to disregard them when talking about movies like these, in which mystery is such a huge part of the viewing experience. In the case of The Prestige, I’m not even sure where they should go, if I’m being honest.
That’s actually one of the things The Prestige does way better than The Illusionist. For one thing, it makes much better use of its framing device: Borden receiving regular visits in jail where he’s about to be executed for [SPOILER, I GUESS?] Angier’s murder, after being found beneath the stage at Angier’s last performance with Angier drowned inside a water tank. The Illusionist’s framing device is merely Uhl telling Leopold all about Eisenheim; it’s not clear when it takes place, nor when exactly it ends, and it doesn’t really add anything.
There are hints and feints made that parts of Eisenheim’s backstory are exaggerated or even entirely made up—Uhl relates a story of young Eisenheim watching a traveling magician literally disappear before his eyes, which seems unlikely. Additionally, there are various hints which appear to suggest that, despite his own vigorous assertions to the contrary, Eisenheim does indeed have real supernatural powers. It’s messy plotting and not only does it not figure into the big “twist”, but the twist actually cheapens and dulls what mystique was actually set up. The Prestige’s multiple twists operate at every moment of the movie, informing it, and infusing it with copious rewatch value. Nothing feels superfluous. It’s as finely tuned as Tesla’s grand machine. The Illusionist’s big twist feels tacked on, like something they decided to do after already finishing the movie. It feels like a concession to the type of story that they’d decided up front to tell but lost the thread of somewhere along the way.
The themes of the two movies could hardly be more different. The Illusionist takes place in a country that no longer exists—the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and the world it presents resembles a dark Germanic fairy tale, full of capricious nobles, humble peasants attaining high rank through their wits and their character, star-crossed romances, and dead souls miraculously appearing to judge the living. It’s a story that hearkens back to an earlier age. The Prestige, by contrast, roots itself firmly in the industrial age, in the London of the British Empire at its height (with some interludes in the ascendant American empire). It is a very modern tale. Magic in The Illusionist is an escape from the world, but magic in The Prestige is an expression of very human forces, and the two men’s wills and drives and passions given tangible form (which is, ironically, one of occultist Aleister Crowley’s definitions of the word “magic”). There is no wonder to be found, at least not of the kind the audience is seeking. “If the audience thought what I did was real, they wouldn’t clap, they’d scream,” says Angier at one point. The Illusionist paints wonder as good, and departure from reality as desirable, but in The Prestige’s harsh realm of science, the only kind of wonder left is the kind that leaves you gibbering in a fit of Lovecraftian madness.
The Prestige is a collaboration between director Christopher Nolan and writer-brother Jonathan Nolan, and is replete with examples of what would become the hallmarks of the Nolan style. Christopher likes to establish shots with a grand vista of a huge stage, showing the sumptuous architecture, the craggy mysterious machinery, making sure we’re aware the setting is sufficiently epic, and then he’ll mostly keep the camera close to his subject’s face, or right in front of it. We’re not here to see what the audience must be seeing: we’re here to find out what the magician is feeling, what he is experiencing. It’s not very subtle at all. Christopher Nolan is not a subtle man. His two feuding protagonists are duplicitous to each other, mysterious to everyone else in their lives, carrying on multiple identities, hatching numerous circuitous schemes—but the audience always knows exactly who they are. They’re obsessives. Egomaniacs. They’re drawn to magic as a way to prove their own power and cleverness. And as much as I think accusations of Nolan as a “film bro” are uncharitable, there’s definitely a line to be drawn between the very masculine self-destructive pathology both magicians exhibit and many of Nolan’s other characters, particularly his portrayal of Batman. These guys are anti-populists. The little guy doesn’t matter. Just as the Nolan Batman always seemed less concerned with protecting the people of Gotham than in proving himself and enacting some epic Nietzschean drama of self-becoming, so do these magicians seem less interested in entertaining their audiences than in using their acts to exorcise their personal demons and turn their professional feuds into high opera.
The Illusionist has more shots from the audience’s perspective, making use of Edward Norton’s muted, inscrutable charisma. He’s shown from further away, from the audience’s perspective, not only because he’s more attuned to his audience and identifies more with them, but also because he’s harder to figure out. This characterization serves him well, not only playing better to Norton’s strengths as an actor, but also in touching on a theme almost completely absent from The Prestige. The Victorian age was marked not only by scientific rationalism and mechanistic thought, but by an opposing swell of interest in occultism, spiritualism, and other non-traditional religious thought. The Illusionist portrays this by having a grieving Eisenheim, in the wake of Sophie’s death, begin to devote his show entirely to public seances and the conjuring of ghosts. His audience, suffering from anxieties over the human costs of industrialization, eats this up. He becomes more popular than ever, which Leopold sees as a threat, and the cultic forces he unleashes are set in direct opposition to the Empire’s power.
At one point, Uhl threatens to arrest Eisenheim for fraud; Eisenheim surprises him by addressing a massed crowd of his followers and telling them his act is fake. Leopold still sees him as a threat, however, because the audience’s belief that his act was real was never the source of his power.
Magic in The Prestige is a scientific tool, a means to elevate oneself over all other earthly powers. Magic in The Illusionist is a religious and social phenomenon which creates a liminal space that breaks down class distinctions, which enables a peasant to break bread with an emperor, or challenge him on equal terms if one so desires. It is this recognition which keeps Edward Norton’s Eisenheim from being swallowed alive by the forces he conjures, where both magicians in The Prestige meet sticky ends.
WINNER: The Prestige. It’s de rigueur these days to dump on Chris Nolan, and indeed he has become somewhat of a self-obsessed fart-smeller who indulges his worst impulses under the banner of auteurism, but you’re a crank if you let that knowledge spoil a work of craftsmanship like The Prestige.