A bitter feud, a prestigious film
The first thing the viewer learns in The Prestige is that every magic trick has three acts: the Pledge, in which the audience is presented with a mundane, unspectacular object; the Turn, in which the object is made to become extraordinary; and the Prestige, in which the audience is shown something that defies their wildest expectations, to the greater glory of the magician.
One would expect a film like this, replete with dueling egos and secrets like nesting dolls, to be structured like a magic trick. And it is, to a degree. But this opus from Christopher Nolan, whose Memento was a word-of-mouth phenomenon several years ago, applies some of his signature logical wizardry to the three-act structure, and the result is astonishing.
Christian Bale (American Psycho) plays Borden, an early 20th Century magician in a dead heat with cagey copycat Angier (X-Men’s Hugh Jackman) to be the foremost practitioner of his craft in the world. The Prestige follows the pair as they move from uneasy partnership to bitter rivalry, coming to a murderous boil early on, when a possibly accidental death causes each to become the other’s nemesis.
The film’s lengthy conflict centers around Borden’s signature trick, “The Transporting Man,” whose secret the single-minded magician keeps guarded with his life. Angier’s mission to learn that secret, thereby destroying his enemy’s livelihood, becomes all-consuming for both men. The film zigs and zags between the playhouses of London and the mountaintops of Colorado Springs, moving quickly – though not in an unsatisfying way – through its expansive story.
In The Prestige, Nolan returns to a stylistic hallmark he largely abandoned for his last two major-studio films. Batman Begins, which resurrected a film franchise in ruins, and Insomnia, a bleak, gripping cat-and-mouse yarn, were both straightforward and basically linear in their presentation.
This film, however, finds the director once again skipping gleefully around his own timeline, due in no small part to the presence of co-writer Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother, on whose short story Memento was based. While one might be tempted to call that a gimmick, Nolan never uses that device without a purpose (his previous two films prove he’s perfectly capable of working without it). In Memento, the backward presentation simulated for the audience what the film’s amnesiac main character grappled with every minute of every day. Here, the cinematic time travel serves as the director’s equivalent of the flash and distraction the film’s characters use to control their audience’s collective gaze.
The suspicion grows as Angier is continually stymied in his quest for the secret, and a stunning possibility is considered: Is Borden’s trick supernatural? Can he, as one character puts it, actually do what other magicians pretend to do?
The Prestige thrives on capable performances from its leads, especially (and this almost goes without saying) from Michael Caine, playing Cutter, Angier’s assistant. Kudos as well to Scarlett Johanssen and Rebecca Hall, who find themselves helplessly in the crossfire of the magicians’ long feud, and David Bowie, playing inventor Nikola Tesla, embroiled in his own feud with rival Thomas Edison.
Though the film’s ending is surprising, it’s not terribly difficult to work out, especially since, from its opening moments, The Prestige challenges the viewer to sniff out its true direction. It trains the audience along the way to see through the showmanship, so it’s no surprise that even a comparatively dense filmgoer like myself figured it out several minutes before the film’s own prestige.
What sets Nolan apart from contemporaries like M. Night Shyamalan is that the film doesn’t depend on its secrets to entertain. There are rich thematic elements here, of jealousy, sacrifice and obsession that qualify The Prestige as a terrific character study, as well as a bloody good mystery.
I like, too, that the film treats its subjects’ obsessions seriously. To them, the craft is everything – it’s not just a sideshow or a quaint distraction, and moves well beyond a mere thirst for the limelight. Anyone who ever wondered why magicians guard their secrets so tenaciously should look no further than The Prestige for an eloquent explanation – the reason you won’t see the machinations of the magic trick, Cutter explains, is because you don’t want to. These characters stoke the fires of imagination with what they do, and present the illusion of the fantastic made possible.
Maintaining that suspension of disbelief is no small feat, and it’s clear by the end of The Prestige why it has the potential to drive a normal man to madness. It’s one element of many that makes this film Nolan’s best since Memento, and one of the most thoroughly entertaining films of the year.
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