The Prestige

October, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Christopher Nolan

Starring:Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, and Rebecca Hall

            British director Christopher Nolan, (Insomnia, Batman Begins) and his brother Jonathan wrote the script for this handsomely mounted melodrama which deals with the rivalry between two English magicians circa 1900. Featuring a big name cast, (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson) and loaded with costume, set design and production values which reflect its substantial budget, Prestige is an obvious labor of love for the director and his sibling, but it can’t compete with The Illusionist, with which it will inevitably be compared.

Bale, (Alfred Borden) and Jackman, (Rupert Angier) play competing magicians working their way up the food chain of their craft under the tutelage of Cutter, (Caine) an ingenious designer/promoter of magic tricks. While acting as supporting players in another magician’s act that also includes Jackman’s wife Julia, she’s accidentally killed. Angier holds Borden responsible and the ensuing enmity between these two blossoms into successive attacks each makes on the other in the middle of their subsequent solo performances. 

Angier’s dark good looks and showmanship, (not to mention the presence on stage of his beautiful assistant Olivia) make him increasingly successful, until Borden begins to feature a trick in his act that appears to magically transport him from one spot to another. Intensely jealous of the man he continues to hold responsible for his wife’s death, Angier becomes determined to learn how this sensational new feat, called “The Transported Man” is accomplished.  Angier sends Olivia to Borden in order to seduce him into divulging his secret. Cutter becomes convinced that Borden’s act involves a double; but when questioned about it, the magician enigmatically demurs, because of course; good magicians never divulge their secrets. Angier does employ a double in his attempt to duplicate the stunt, only to be publicly embarrassed when Borden exposes the fraud in the middle Angier’s act.

Angier’s obsession leads him to foul play, followed by a journey to the mountains of Colorado and an extended negotiation with a mad scientist named Tesla, (David Bowie) whose experiments with electricity rival those of Dr. Frankenstein. After a good deal of to and fro, Angier returns to England with an obelisk-shaped box designed and built by Tesla which permits Angier to dazzle his audiences with an even more sensational version of “The Transported Man”. But Borden somehow seems to be both in jail awaiting execution and out on the streets of London at the same time…how do both of these men do what they do?

Unfortunately, an often incomprehensible combination of flashbacks and flash-forwards makes the unfolding plot unnecessarily hard to follow and the outlandishly silly double-helix explanation of being in two places at once isn’t hard to unravel because the Nolans tip the secret of their plot far too early and often to keep the audience guessing. The failure to build necessary tension into the competition between Jackman and Bale doesn’t help either; these otherwise accomplished actors, (who slip in and out of their accents as often as they do their costumes) just don’t generate the kind of interest in their characters that’s necessary to offset the potholes in the storyline. Caine does his usual yeoman’s job in the second-banana slot as the grizzled Cutter, but does Johansson really need another paycheck? This is her second perplexing appearance in the last couple of months, (after The Black Dahlia) and even an actress of her promise can’t afford to be seen in films that don’t provide the right chance to showcase either her talent or sex appeal. 

 Good magic requires more than complex puzzles; it needs a pervasive sense of mystery, something director Neil Burger recognized when he delivered The Illusionist to theaters this summer; in it, Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti played the same cat and mouse game that forms the basis of this movie, but with a level of charm and magnetism that trumps every scene of The Prestige

The verdict? This one is merely passable escapism and a pale imitation of The Illusionist, a film with real magic. 

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