(This is another article of mine which was originally published at passionforcinema.com )
Making films about magic has an air of convenience. You just know that there are going to be 'it' moments popping up from time to time........"Deus Ex Machina" is a term used in literature and theatre (in Latin, literally "god out of a machine" ) to describe sudden contrived plot devices. It is easy to surmise that when the focal point of a film is magic, there is no getting away from Deus Ex Machina. The trick is pulling it off, not trying to fool the audience.
Recently I watched two films which managed to do this, with different degrees of success- Neil Burger's "The Illusionist" and Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige".Both films were released in 2006, both were period pieces inspired by literary works set in the early 20th century, but the similarities end there. While "The Illusionist" is like a demure, sober,refined symphony which only lets it hair down in the final 15 minutes or so, "The Prestige" is a big sprawling ambitious romp powered by an ensemble cast.
"The Illusionist" based on Pulitzer-winner Steve Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" chronicles the story of a shadowy, mysterious magician who is in love with a duchess, set to be the royal consort of the Austrian crown prince. His own troubled past haunts him continuously as he travels around Vienna performing amazing, never-before seen illusions(a paricularly spectacular one involving an orange tree is one of the high points of the film). Ed Norton as Eisenheim is reasonably subdued. The mystique his character exudes is sometimes tedious but overall this is another competent portrayal by one of my favourite actors(American History X remains one of all-time faves). The Duchess von Teschen played by Jessica Biel is not a very demanding role, and Biel manages to look radiant and has a pleasing screen presence.
But the real performance of the film comes from Paul Giamatti who plays Inspector Uhl, a crooked policeman loyal to the cruel, twisted Prince Leopold , but at the same time besotted with Eisenheim's artistry. Uhl is an intriguingly ambiguous character. He thinks that Eisenheim is a treasure but has no qualms about incarcerating or even killing him in order to further his own ambitions under the impending regime under Leopold. The scene where he tries to convince Eisenheim of the futility of his actions is a delight. So is the climactic sequence where Uhl realises the full extent of Eisenheim's web of illusions. He realises that he has been conned big-time, but at the same time he cannot help but marvel at the master illusionist's genius.
The film's cinematography has a charming, simplistic old-world charm about it. While everyone may not like the film's Usual Suspects like climactic "twist" the film manages to do just enough to hold your attention.
"The Prestige" which hit the theatres months after "The Illusionist" tells the story of Robert Angier(Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden(Christian Bale), two warring magicians who are always looking to get the better of each other. On one level, it is a straightforward gunslinger rivalry tale, but it in fact explores much deeper questions about the nature of reality, and the terrible power of obesession. Michael Caine plays William Cutter, maker of magical apparatus who is in many ways the conscience-keeper of the story. The cast is rounded off by Scarlett Johannson playing Olivia, a woman torn between the two rivals, and David Bowie who has a magisterial cameo as Nikola Tesla, the famed inventor.
The Chris Nolan brand of storytelling first seen in Memento and perfected in Batman Begins is in full flow here, right from the opening scene where Angier performs a complicated trick called "The Teleported Man" , alternated with Cutter explaining to a young girl the three stages of a magic trick, the last being "The Prestige". Angier wants to unlock the secrets of Borden's tricks through his ciphered journal but Borden, who is a clearly superior magician technically, always has a few tricks extra up his sleeves. Journals prove to be dead ends, stories turn out to be unreliable, this Chinese puzzle-box styled plot leaves th audience gasping for breath but in the end it is Nolan who guides the ship home with an immaculate sense of timing.
One of the many interesting things about the film is its de-mysticised treatment of the magicians as opposed to Eisenheim's mystique and mastery in "The Illusionist". Angier and Borden are painfully human, they are stabbed, shot, pummelled into submission. They are petty, often insecure and always vindictive. On the other hand it is the scientist Tesla who has been portrayed as the real magician, a shaman-like dabbler in all things dark and mysterious. Case in point being Tesla's entry scene where he steps out of a huge machine, elaborate electric sparks flowing all around him. Cutter says in a scene, "We are just pretenders acting the parts of magicians but that machine was horrible.......it was real magic." , about a machine Tesla made for Angier. The real-life rivalry between Thomas Edison and Tesla has been depicted here as a sort of mirror for the Angier-Borden rivalry.
Fresh off the back of the dark reboot of the Batman saga "Batman Begins" Nolan teamed up with Christian Bale and veteran Michael Caine once again with spectacular results. The camera loves Bale's deep dark brooding gaze and his innate inscrutability shines across in the grim, determined character Borden. The "unreliable narrator" device employed by Nolan works to a tee as you are kept guessing in this lavishly told story.
On the whole, I think that "The Prestige" gains a point over "The Illusionist" for its greater scope, better performances, and for Nolan's artistry. I hope to catch his next film "The Dark Knight" real soon, which even as I write these words, has already started to draw rave reviews from around the world.