Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis
MPAA Rating: (for violence and disturbing images)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 10/20/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
Apologies ahead of time, but I must begin with a cliché: The Prestige has enough tricks up its sleeve to count on both hands, feet, and other appendages. This is a grand piece of storytelling, completely off-catching in its material and method. Part homage to the art of performance, part admiration of science and technology, part unexpected turn to science fiction, and total mind-melting madness, this is a film to dissect, turn over in the mind, and still come up short of just how many levels on which it works. At its heart is a tale of obsession—a theme to which director Christopher Nolan is no stranger—and deception. Trying to keep most of its revelations a secret, my fellow critic John Young explained it best: the film is itself a magic trick. Just as illusionists deceive audiences, Nolan's film is an extended deception, focusing our attention on certain elements only to pull the old switcheroo on something more obvious. The secrets of The Prestige are fairly straightforward, but each one contains a shock that we don't expect—mainly because we don't want to. The film is also a study of the extent to which people will deceive themselves to rationalize the darker recesses of their souls.
At the end of the 19th century, two illusionists' competitive natures are taken to the extreme. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) heads backstage during his rival Robert Angier's (Hugh Jackman) latest performance. By the end of the act, Angier is dead, drowned in a locked escape tank placed under the trapdoor on stage. During the course of Borden's trial, Cutter (Michael Caine), an ingénieur of illusions who has worked with both men, details to the court the shared history and importance of the escape tank in which Angier drowned. He also privately shows the judge the machine at the center of Angier's master illusion, one Cutter says was built by a man who could actually do what magicians only pretend to do. Borden is convicted of Angier's murder and sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting execution, he gains access to Angier's journal, which chronicles the magician's attempt to outdo Borden's most astonishing illusion. Angier himself had been sent on an apparent wild goose chase by Borden's own journal, and somewhere in the middle of all of this are Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo), Borden's wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and both men's mistress and assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson).
Somewhat complicated stuff, and Nolan doesn't simplify matters. With masterful editing by Lee Smith, the film weaves in and out of the story's timelines without any obvious cues (e.g., titles) as to when we are. Nolan's command of this chronological mishmash is equally skilled, though, and with subtle visual and character clues, it's always obvious where we're at in the story. The style not only keeps us involved but also off-guard—a classic case of misdirection in line with the craft of stage illusion. There are three stages to a trick, we learn in the film, and the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (working off the novel by Christopher Priest) similarly follows those steps. The first step, the pledge, offers something ordinary with a promise of the extraordinary. There are two major revelations by the film's end (and a slew of other ones in between), so we're given hints as to what the spectacular nature of these performers' tricks is. The turn, the second step, is the extraordinary event itself. As the film progresses, we slowly see the tricks and are given hints as to how they came about. The final step is the prestige, and it is essentially the return to the ordinary but in a new way.
By the film's end, of course, everything is revealed, and I would feel guilty even slightly hinting at any of the revelations the film has in store, let alone the prestiges. What's remarkable about the ultimate secrets is the way Nolan repeatedly gives us the answer without actually doing so. While certain elements of the reveals are clear, the full nature of them does not become crystallized until the very end. Similar to the actual slow disclosure of the tricks and their methods is the way the Nolans gradually build up character-driven and thematic impact to the plot. What starts as professional competition turns into a desire for vindication, both on a professional and personal level. Each man's obsession is absolute, a potentially deadly focus that makes all other aspects of their respective lives irrelevant. While Angier begins his fixation on Borden because of his wife, all of his noble intentions of justice are lost in his manic desire to exceed his colleague, and Borden's wife is never sure if his family is as significant as his profession. An answer to Borden's loyalty is present amidst the revelation of his secret, but the actual nature of each man's secret shows his total dedication to his art. In the finale, the Nolans also raise philosophical quandaries regarding the nature of self and the role of science in the modern age.
The film is given an atmospheric look by cinematographer Wally Pfister, and production designer Nathan Crowley lends authenticity and mood to the film's period setting. London here is a dark, sprawling mess of obvious class distinctions, full of a range of theatrical venues, and it serves a counterpoint to the stark, snowy isolation of Colorado in which Angier eventually finds himself. As Angier, Hugh Jackman appears at first a charming showman, and he plays to the appealing nature of Angier's performance style. As tragedy befalls and obsession takes hold, though, Jackman ably shifts Angier into a far darker figure. Christian Bale is immediately shady as Borden and makes the strange personality an ominous figure. Unfortunately—and not Bale's fault—Borden is never able to achieve the sympathetic view pushed upon him by the finale. Michael Caine is his usual fine self as the engineer, Andy Serkis appears as a non-CG character, and David Bowie is almost unrecognizable as Nikola Telsa, whose rivalry with an unseen Thomas Edison mirrors the two antiheroes' own. While the women of the film mainly sit in the wings, Rebecca Hall's vulnerable turn as Borden's wife is quite affecting.
There are undoubtedly some who lose favor with the film by the "prestige" act, but if you're willing to go along with the admittedly hokey sci-fi angle, The Prestige is a brooding accomplishment. I say hokey, but I mean that in a loving, endearing, this-is-a-brilliant-kind-of-hokey way. At one point in the film, a character admits that people can't and don't want to believe magic tricks are true, and that if they were, magicians would be locked up. He cites the trick of sawing a woman in half as something too horrible for people to think about as reality. If you're willing to go along with the story's own reality, some of the revelations in The Prestige are equally horrific to consider.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.