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The Illusionists


The Prestige

Christopher Nolan, UK, 2006

Rating: 4.4


Posted: October 24, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, based on Christopher Preist's novel about dueling Victorian-era magicians, is rich with feints and moments of canny misdirection, packed into a Byzantine back-and-forward-in-time structure that can't help but invite comparisons to his breakout film Memento. Sure, it piles on perhaps one too many bits of narrative sleight-of-hand, but that's okay. As with a real magic trick, it's not the figuring out of the logistical details that matter most (audiences don't really want to know how the trick is done, as one character points out); what's important is that we're taken in by the illusion.

At least, that's what's most important to Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) as The Prestige opens; he's an apprentice to a veteran illusionist, and he's married to a comely magician's assistant (Piper Perabo, showing off a great pair of legs). Life's pretty good for Angier; certainly, he's not as intense as his fellow apprentice, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who's obsessed with bettering his craft, disdainful of playing it safe. When one of Borden's impulses results in a tragic and fatal accident, Angier also becomes obsessed -- with revenge.

As he watches Borden (now billed as "The Professor") enjoy the kind of family life he himself is denied, Angier (who takes the name "The Great Danton") becomes increasingly consumed with outshining his former colleague, besting him by any means necessary. Thus begins a bitter rivalry and a dangerous game of one-upmanship involving mutilation, sabotage, kidnapping and attempted murder. That game, which inflicts permanent wounds on both men, soon revolves around a trick called "The Transported Man," which cements Borden's reputation and eventually sends Angier to America to seek help from inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, in a perhaps too-understated turn).

Tesla's introduction eventually nudges The Prestige into science-fiction territory, but it's a testament to the film's tautly compelling rivalry that the film doesn't go wildly off the rails at this point. Nolan keeps the competition front and center, aided by an adept cast. Bale isn't given a role as meaty as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or even Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, but he makes Borden's tightly wound intensity riveting to watch. Jackman isn't as immediately grabbing a screen presence as Bale, a fact he uses to his advantage: He never relinquishes hold of Angier's humanity, exhibiting a guarded sense of wounded sensitivity that helps us to buy, if not excuse, his ever more fanatical actions.

They're not the only actors doing solid turns: Michael Caine instinctively knows not to overplay his role as the engineer of Angier's illusions, turning in a riff on the supportive-uncle/mentor role he played to Bale in the aforementioned Batman Begins. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, does credible work as an assistant and love interest, but her luminous presence is underused. It's probably just as well: When she's onscreen, it's hard to concentrate on, or care much about, anything else.

The "prestige" of the title refers to the final, capping moment in a magic trick -- you know, when the magician's comely assistant proves herself not to have been sawed in half after all, or the magician presents (with a flourish) the bird he just made disappear. There's no such moment in The Prestige -- reality isn't neatly restored at the end. The film does finally reveal its secrets, most of which flutter just beyond the edge of the viewer's consciousness; they're there for the cracking, but Nolan and his cast keep us too distracted to spend time trying to put all the pieces together. How appropriate that a movie about dueling Victorian-era magicians would itself prove to be one elaborate and satisfying trick.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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