Director : Christopher Nolan
Screenplay : Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (based on the novel by Christopher Priest)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Hugh Jackman (Robert Angier), Christian Bale (Alfred Borden), Michael Caine (Cutter), Scarlett Johansson (Olivia Wenscombe), Rebecca Hall (Sarah Borden), Piper Perabo (Julia Angier), Samantha Mahurin (Jess), David Bowie (Nikolas Tesla), Andy Serkis (Alley)
Christopher Nolan's The Prestige has the unfortunate task of arriving as the second of this fall's turn-of-the-20th-century thrillers involving magicians. A few months ago, Neil Burger's The Illusionist gave us Edward Norton as a tortured Viennese spiritualist up to all kinds of possibly supernatural tricks. Nolan ups the ante by giving us two tortured conjurers who, although they start out working together, end up bitter enemies who would do anything to destroy each other. The film's underlying fascination with the destructive nature of obsession gives The Prestige an aura of thematic heft that helps elevate it above mere narrative trickery.
And isn't that what Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan do best? After all, they were the minds behind Memento (2001), which was both an elegant treatise on the unreachable nature of "Truth" and also one of the most ingenious and brilliantly crafted gimmick movies ever made. In their screenplay for The Prestige, which was based on a novel by Christopher Priest, the Nolans again use all kinds of temporal gymnastics to rearrange the order of the narrative outside anything reflecting strict linear progression. The film begins near the end, with one character apparently witnessing the death of another, and then spirals backward into time via journal entries, some of which are read within other journal entries. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, yet it is never once confusing or, more importantly, disingenuous. Lesser filmmakers often fail in these storytelling contortions because they never work beyond their own craftiness, but the Nolans have distilled it to a fine art; you wouldn't want to see Christopher Nolan direct a film that goes straight from A to Z.
The story takes place in London and follows the two burgeoning magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), as they jockey for position as the city's most revered illusionist. They come from different backgrounds--Angier is the product of familial wealth, the kind that is embarrassed by his profession on the stage, and Borden is a scrappy Cockney working his way up the socio-economic ladder--but they both want the same thing: greatness. Their rivalry begins when Angier (perhaps rightfully) blames Borden for the accidental death of a loved one, and their relationship quickly spirals into a series of sabotages that eventually obliterates any sense of why they're feuding in the first place. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of vengeance.
The drive to one-up each other leads Angier to the United States, where he journeys into the cold mountains of Colorado to meet the mysterious inventor Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie), whose experiments with electricity may hold the key to unlocking Borden's greatest stage illusion, the so-called "Transporting Man." Tesla, an enigmatic figure of obvious genius, is embroiled in a rivalry of his own with the unseen Thomas Edison, which further underscores the film's interest in professional obsession and the destructive nature of enmity.
For most of its two hours, The Prestige is a deeply engrossing film whose puzzlebox structure draws you deep into its mysteries and keeps a firm grasp on your attention. Working again with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has shot all of his features, Nolan gives the film a rich visual texture that often borders on the beautifully surreal, such as a shot in which Tesla's assistant Alley (Andy Serkis, finally free of Peter Jackson's CGI), lights up a snowy field with giant light bulbs that need no wires. Nolan is an expert at framing, and each shot feels exquisitely rendered, although like the beautiful assistants magicians often employ (embodied in the film by Scarlett Johansson), The Prestige's picturesque beauty often feels like a purposeful distraction to keep you from seeing what you need to see until Nolan is ready to reveal it.
In the film's opening moments, Cutter (Michael Caine), an expert in designing and building trick devices, explains how magic tricks work, with an emphasis on the fact that we don't catch the trickery not because we can't, but because we don't want to. "You want to be fooled," Cutter says, yet the film is intent on revealing secrets at every turn. The Prestige is fascinated with the mechanics of magic--we get numerous shots of gears and pulleys and ropes and other bits of industrial machinery that make the mundane seem magical--yet it ultimately hinges on a bit of genuine magic that is, shall we say, a little hard to swallow.
Perhaps it is because the film focuses so much on the mechanical and the material that the sudden intrusion of the genuinely magical feels forced and even somewhat silly. One could argue that this "magic" is not really magic at all because it relies on scientific discovery, rather then supernatural intrusion. However, the results are so astounding and beyond our current comprehension that they rest squarely in the realm of the fantastical. And this does not even take into account the fact that this device also opens a number of moral quandaries that Nolan is clearly not interested in investigating, which ultimately makes The Prestige seem more like a clever parlor trick than a feat of true wonder.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Touchstone Pictures