(Touchstone) Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansen, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Roger Rees, Samantha Mahurin, Jim Piddock, Mark Ryan, Jamie Harris, Christopher Neame, Ron Perkins, Ricky Jay. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
A magic trick is much like a three-act play, with the initial explanatory portion (the pledge), the turn – what you might call the plot complication – and the payoff, which is called in the business the prestige. As wily old Cutter (Caine) says, “It isn’t enough to make something disappear. You have to make it come back.”
Magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) are both learning the craft of magic from a veteran stage performer in London in the late 19th century. Robert is a married man, whose passion for Sarah (Hall) is matched only for his ambition to be in the limelight. Sarah is also part of the act, but she must often act as a sort of mediator between her husband and Borden, who have become fierce rivals. When one of the most dangerous tricks in the act goes terribly wrong, a distraught Robert blames Alfred for it.
Time passes and Alfred, a great natural magician with little talent for showmanship, is beginning to develop a reputation and a following. He meets Julia (Perabo) and eventually marries her. They have a daughter named Jess (Mahurin) and as Alfred gets more and more popular, he buys his bride a home. Then, one terrible night, Alfred is performing his bullet catch, his most dangerous stunt. A mysterious stranger comes out of the crowd to assist with the trick, and things go awry for Alfred, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his left hand. The mysterious stranger is revealed to be Angier.
As Bordens’ fortune sours, so Angier’s soars. With the assistance of Cutter, he puts together a show that has the potential to be the toast of London. Angier is an adequate magician but a tremendous showman, charismatic and handsome. With pretty assistant Olivia (Johansen) urging him on, he is on the brink of success – when a mysterious stranger who looks a lot like Borden causes another trick to go wrong, maiming an audience member in the process. Angier’s show is closed by the disgruntled theater owner.
When Borden returns with an astonishing trick that neither Angier nor Cutter can figure out, Angier does his best to replicate it, but his attempts are exposed to a bemused audience by Borden. Humiliated and furious, Angier leaves London to find out the secret of the trick. He sends Olivia to work for Borden as a spy and she manages to retrieve Borden’s diary. Scorned and feeling used, she leaves Angier for Borden, creating an untenable situation for Borden’s wife.
Cracking the diary’s cipher, Angier travels to America to meet with the great Nicola Tesla (Bowie) and his acerbic assistant Alley (Serkis) to try to replicate the device that he built for Borden. Despite Tesla’s warnings, Angier persists. Finally, Tesla reluctantly relents. From that moment on, the confrontation between the two rival magicians is inevitable and there is no doubt that tragedy is certain.
As much as being a movie about magic, this movie is about obsession and the cost it takes on those who are gripped by it. Director Nolan keeps things taut and simple. Although there is a bit of a twist that arrives near the end (which just keeps on twisting, don’t you know), the plot is elegant in its simplicity. As with his previous classic Memento, Nolan’s writing is so flawless that no event is wasted, and everything eventually makes sense in its own internal logic.
Bale and Jackman both deliver performances that keep you interested in their characters. Neither character is written as a hero nor a villain, but with shades of both in their personality, leaning towards the villain more in both men. It is hard to root for either one of the magicians as they do some Very Bad Things to each other, but the story is so interesting and the acting so powerful that you just want to see where the story takes them.
Inevitably, this will be compared to The Illusionist which was released at nearly the same time and features a similar turn-of-the-century European backdrop and a magician as a central character. With a larger budget, Nolan is more reliant on special effects than the other, which is a bit of a throwback in feel and in direction to silent movies. The Prestige is all modern, a big ole Hollywood blockbuster, make no mistake.
What makes the movie work is that the characters are so single minded on their quest that they have forgotten what their quest truly was. In the end, they are just flailing away at each other, motivated by hatred, greed and the baser parts of man’s nature. It is inevitable that men who fall from grace so completely will come to a bad end. It is not unlike watching an auto race and waiting for that crash. You know its coming; you just don’t know when it will come and how bad it will be when it gets there.
WHY RENT THIS: Nolan ratchets up the tension and Bale and Jackman do some fine movie star-style work. A fascinating look at the inner workings of a magician’s trade.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to root for either of the leads, who behave very badly towards one another. The McGuffin of Tesla’s machine stretches the line of credibility a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing imagery and violence, but definitely fine for teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Christian Bale played DC Comics’ Batman; Hugh Jackman played Marvel Comics Wolverine; in the Amalgam series in which characters from both universes were merged, Wolverine and Batman were mixed to create the single character Dark Claw.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 8/10