© 2006 Ray Wong
Every great magic trick has three acts: the pledge (something ordinary is presented), the turn (something extraordinary happens), and the prestige (the final, mystifying reappearance that sends the audience wild with imagination). Many great stories also have three acts, and The Prestige follows this structure to create a suspenseful, supernatural thriller-mystery with plenty of twists.
Rupert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are two magicians in turn-of-the-century London. When one excels in his act, the other has to one up the other. When tragedy strikes, their friendly competition turns into bitter, vengeful rivalry.
Angier is the better showman, but Borden is the better magician. When Borden creates the "Transported Man" trick, Angier is green with envy. Worse, he can't figure out how Borden does it. The obsession of finding the answer and doing it better than Borden is driving Angier mad, putting a wedge between him and his manager, Cutter (Caine). Angier sends his assistant Olivia (Johansson) to spy on Borden, steals his secret journal, and demands the cypher by kidnapping Borden's brother.
Borden's answer sends Angier to America to find Nikola Tesla (Bowie) to build him a machine that would actually transport a person. While Angier spends his time waiting on Tesla and deciphering Borden's journal, Borden is enjoying tremendous success in London and carrying an affair with Olivia, betraying his wife's love. Soon, Angier returns from America and puts on 100 performances of his own "Transported Man," one that is bigger, better, and more amazing than Borden's. Desperate to know Angier's secret, Borden sneaks in and discovers the horrible truth, which may ultimately cost him his life.
All the leads do beautiful work in this intriguing mind-twister. As Angier, Jackman (Scoop) is dashing, charming, yet burdened by a sinister obsession that leads him down a horrible path. Equally impressive is Bale (Batman Returns) as Borden, Angier's archenemy. Of the two, Bale's role requires more depth, complexity and emotional distance, and he pulls it off nicely. Caine (Batman Returns) is simply brilliant with his underplayed characterization of Cutter, the narrator and moral center of the whole story.
Rounding out the cast are Johansson (Scoop) as Angier's effervescent assistant. Her role is relatively minor, serving mostly as a plot device but eventually offering an emotional reason for Borden's ordeal. Perabo (Imagine Me and You) has a brief role as Angier's wife, and Hall (Starter for Ten) as Borden's wife Sarah. Both women do a fine job in their respective supporting role that ground the male-heavy production and give it an emotional resonance. Bowie (Mr. Rice's Secret) is fun to watch as Tesla, though I didn't even recognize him at first. Serkis (King Kong) is delightful as Tesla's assistant.
The Nolan brothers (Memento) has done a great job adapting Christopher Priest's intriguing novel, even though they've changed a lot, adding new twists and fleshing out some plot issues to make the story more comprehensible for the movie audiences. The story is full of twists, one after another; the problem is, director Nolan also gives away a lot of clues, right from the beginning shots, so if you have paid attention (and who wouldn't, once you enter the theater knowing you're about to see a mystery/thriller about magic), halfway through you would know how the story is going to unfold and what is happening. That's the problem with the film. With every great magic trick, you can't tell how it's done even if you look very closely. It's not the case with this film -- it's predictable once you figure it out, and it's not difficult to figure it out.
But like a great magic trick, much of it has to do with the presentation. The production is fantastic, with gorgeous cinematography, set designs and costumes. The structure of "threes" is evident throughout the film: in addition to its three acts, the story is told through three separate time lines -- one present-time, and two flashbacks told through Borden's and Angier's journals. The crosscutting, non-linear time lines can be confusing at first, but Nolan is smart enough to leave you visual clues so once you find your marks, the technique is interesting and keeps the audiences guessing. The Nolan brothers are very intelligent and clever, and it shows in every film they've done so far.
The film does focus on the rivalry and the one-upmanship, and most often it feels cold. Compared to The Illusionist, which I think is a superb romantic mystery, the story and ending of The Prestige are less than emotionally rewarding. It's exactly like a magic trick: it will leave you giddy, full of wonder and exhilaration, but rather empty emotionally. For those who are not too keen on figuring it out before everyone else does, they would enjoy the twists, turns, and the ultimate prestige of this intriguing film about obsession, deceit, revenge and sacrifices.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan (based on Christopher Priest's novel)
Distributor: Newmarket Films
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 128 minutes
Script – 9
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.1 out of 10