DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Illusionist, The Prestige


Title:  Mrs. Henderson Presents

Release Date: 2005 

Nationality and Language: UK, English

Running time: 103 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Weinstein Company LLC, Pathe, BBC

Director; Writer: Stephen Frear; David Rose and Kathy Rose (“idea”)


Cast:   Judy Densch, Bob Hoskins, Will Young

Technical: flat shoot (1.85 to 1)

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  wartime sacrifice by civilians


When I was growing up, there was a movie theater in downtown Washington D.C. called the Pix (no match for the Capitol, the Palace, the Columbia, the Warner), and I noted once that it was showing “Burlesque in Harlem.” I would ask my mother what burlesque was. Later films there would have titles like “Um Boy.”


So we have burlesque here encapsulated in bigger issues, one of them presented by the widow heroine Mrs. Henderson, whose son died in World War I with a “French postcard” but never got to see a nude member of the opposite sex. A deprivation for a heterosexual. So, when her husband’s death (in 1937) leaves her with the ability to do anything she wants (like “give to charity” and “shop”) she buys a London stage and sets up shop as the Windmill Theater, which offers Variety, and that includes nudity. You see it all, with verbal comments (unshaved), and at one point the men have to undress, when Mrs. Henderson tells Mr. Van Damm, “I see that you are Jewish!”  (Is that because he is hairy, or because he is circumcised?) The movie is filled with adult jokes like this, the kind that wind up on email chain letters, and they are funny.


It gets dead serious, though, during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain in 1940. Since the Windmill is largely underground, they can keep the show going, it is by and large a physically safe refuge from the bombs. (The movie shows some pretty effective black and white news footage of Hitler’s invasion, to contrast with the garish colors of the stage sets. Aquamarine blue is especially prevalent.)  But finally it takes a direct hit, and the British government tries to close the establishment. This gets a bit heavy, about the sacrifices that civilians have to make – there have already been scenes of the blackouts. But the show goes on and the place never closes.   


The Illusionist (2006, Yari Film Group/Bob Yari, dir. Neil Burger, story Steven Millhauser "Eisenheim the Illusionist," PG-13, Czech/UK, 110 min). Why does this fantasy with big stars have a new entrepreneurial distributor, when something like the Fox Searchlight sounds right? Well, if you want to make a movie, you don't need the studios any more. You can go to the hedge funds, or overseas, To places like Spain or, her, the Czech Republic. That is, if you have clout. That is what Tom Cruise intends to do, and he'll probably make his own films on this level at least. (He doesn't need Paramount now.) The film, with plenty of ambitious big stars with a moral message, cost about $16 M, which is not pocket change for a college student. And it translates a philosophy lesson into an entertaining period piece, Vienna around 1900, but actually filmed in the Czech Republic apparently with local money. The "three act screenplay structure" here is mostly within one long flashback told by inspector Uhl  (Paul Giamatti), and the film creates the mood of a Shyamalan film (I would expect that director to go this route next).  The flashback itself birfurcates, as we first see the young magician as a teen (Aaron Johnson), meeting an old man on a trail, getting powers, and then trying to save his beloved. The adult relationship between a thirtyish Eisenheim (Ed Norton) and Sophie (Jessica Biel) is the centerpiece, with one very passionate scene, around which Eisenheim drapes his theatrical career of magic shows.


Now, he has all kinds of tricks -- growing orange trees and the like, but the best seems to be resurrecting people from the dead as holograms. The story intentionally lets us decide if his apparitions are "real." (At one place, Uhl demonstrates a kaledioscopic like device that might have produced them.) The police are after him because he is stirring things up, actually threatening the Austria-Hungarian monarchy. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is also after Sophie, and may have killed her when she refuses him. Then, OK, no problem, Eisenheim can resurrect her from the dead. Not only does this become Hitchcockian, it is still political. Eisenheim is perturbing the status quo with images and shows whose meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and that is the problem. Truth is not objective. Eisenheim draws great attention to himself, to the consternation of the monarchy; his act is something like 1900's anticipation of an Internet con search engines a century later. He even tells a crowd gathered at the police station that his act is an illusion. Bue even Eisenheim doesn't know what the truth is, because there isn't any.


I've even had a situation like this concerning one of my own online scripts, when found by an employer. What did it say about me? I don't know. It's what you want to believe. That is the problem.


The Prestige (2006, Touchstone/Warner Bros./Newmarket, dir. Christopher Nolan, novel by Christopher Priest, USA/UK, 128 min, PG-13). First, note the unusual distribution setup. The theatrical prints show Disney's Buena Vista as the official distributor, but Newmarket is usually a distributor of small indie films, including auteur Nolan's own "Memento". The film required $40 million and two major studios, even though it is aimed to be perceived as an "art" film, a combo of murder mystery, sci-fi and period. This may portend a trend, where directors and actors get together and arrange their own funding, and hit the festivals with the advantages of enormous resources.


Michael Caine, playing Cutter, explains the setup well. "There are three parts to any magic trick. The first part is The Pledge. The second part is The Turn. But you have to bring the object back. The third part is called The Prestige." Now The Prestige pretty much forms the paradigm for the whole movie plot about two magicians rivaling each other in 1899 London. Christian Bale plays Alfred Borden, who is to hang for the murder of his rival Rupert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman. Scarlet Johansson plays Olivia Wenscombe, who plays one rival against another, offering "trade secrets" and then reversing course. David Bowie is scientist Nikolas Tesla, whom both magicians contact in Colorado for competitive advantage. Tesla, portrayed as the inventor of alternating current, has a "box" that can make an object disappear and be teleported instantly, and sometimes seems to duplicate objects, including hats, cats and people. Toward the end, the mystery takes on a David Lynch quality, with duplicate bodies and swapping identities, stuff that almost anticipates ideas in books by Arthur C. Clarke or perhaps Clive Barker. Nolan seems to present the incidents in the very intricate plot out of sequence, a favorite technique of his. The portrayal of the "technology" of magic is more detailed here than in "The Illusionist" and Nolan's work here makes me wonder if he could take on Clive Barker's monumental 1991 novel "Imajica."   


The script does point at some social values.  Borden, while in jail, is told that his baby daughter may not have much of a life because of his crimes, and Rupert writes that he won't embarrass his own family with excessive publicity about his stunts. But Cutter explains that an explanation ruins a magic trick. It is the performance -- of the Prestige -- that matters, nothing else. Appearances mean everything, truth means nothing. Yet, the film, for all its out-of-sequence plotting, maintains its suspense by prepping up for an extra-physical "explanation" from Tesla. 


Related reviews:. Memento       Clive Barker's book Imajica


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