Are you watching closely? I’m having a harder time than usual thinking of what to say about Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, not only because I think it’s a film best seen cold, with as little information going in as possible, but also because, having read the book by Christopher Priest, my experience with the film was very different from that of most folks. As Michael Caine’s ingenieur Cutter notes at one point, successful magic is all about confusion and misdirection — if you know how it’s done, even a complex and fantastic magic trick can seem blatantly obvious from the get-go. So my time with The Prestige was roughly akin to seeing The Sixth Sense and knowing Bruce Willis is a ghost from the first reel. That being said, while I can’t vouch for how well Nolan conceals his own prestiges from the audience here, I found the movie a dark, clever, and elegant contraption, one that suggests razor-sharp clockwork gears and threatening pulses of electrical current, all impressively encased in burnished Victorian-era mahogany. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s previous work, or of sinister mind-benders in general, The Prestige is a must-see film. Either way, it’s among the top offerings of 2006 thus far.
So, what’s the pledge? Slumming aristocrat Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and working-class upstart Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, particularly good) both serve as magician’s assistants to a by-the-numbers prestidigitator (Ricky Jay) — they’re audience plants — and both harbor aspirations of taking their own act on the road. But after an on-stage tragedy involving Angier’s escapist wife (Piper Perabo), a wedge is driven between these two would-be men of magick, fomenting a lifelong rivalry that turns increasingly brutal and obsessive. This becomes particularly so after Borden, the more talented illusionist, comes up with a nifty trick — The Transported Man — that Angier, the more impressive showman, can’t seem to match, even with the aid of his longtime ingenieur, Cutter (Caine). Eventually, Angier is compelled to travel to faraway Colorado Springs to pay visit to a wizard of a different order, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), and perhaps enlist him (and his Igor-by-way-of-Brooklyn assistant, (Andy Serkis)) in unraveling Borden’s secret. (As apparently required by law this year, Scarlett Johansson also factors in the tale as Olivia, a lovely magician’s assistant bandied back and forth by the two rivals, but it’s a smaller part than you might expect, and newcomer Rebecca Hall makes more of an impression as Borden’s long-suffering wife, Sarah.)
In keeping with Nolan’s usual m.o., The Prestige is not told linearly, but in narrative fragments spurred by memory, sadness, or anger. In fact, the film begins near the end, with Borden first witnessing and then on trial for the apparent murder of Angier. (Well, that is, after a striking title shot of top hats piled up bizarrely in a forest bed, a shot which makes more sense as the story progresses — I’ll admit to being a sucker for films that start off thus.) And, while the film takes a few jags away from Priest’s book (including omitting both the framing device — good choice — and the very last sequence, which I thought was deliriously creepy and somewhat missed here), it nevertheless keeps the basic story arcs of the novel intact. (In other words, and while remaining as oblique as possible, mystery purists may feel somewhat cheated by the Tesla turn the story takes ninety minutes in, but it’s central to the source material, and had to be there.) Also like the book, Nolan’s final hole card is a deeply disturbing one that’ll linger in the senses well after this trick is complete. In sum, along with Memento and Batman Begins, this jagged tale of illusion and obsession should only add to Chris Nolan’s burgeoning prestige: Bring on The Dark Knight.