The Prestige

November 23rd, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johannson, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

This isn’t the first time Hugh Jackman’s been here. In 2001’s Kate and Leopold, he played a 19th century aristocrat who falls in love with a woman from modern day New York (Meg Ryan) through the magic of time travel.

How is that similar to the story of two rival illusionists? Despite stumbling across one of the most astounding scientific discoveries in the history of humanity, the poor sap who discovered it in James Mangold’s 2001 rom-com (Liev Schreiber) doesn’t stun the world and usher in a new dawn of understanding, he uses time travel to allow Jackman and Ryan’s characters to ride off into the sunset together.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Prestige has a similar premise; a reveal so astounding it will knock your head off and a science ironically a hot topic in our own time. Yet the one most involved — Jackman again — only wants to use it to give his arch rival comeuppance.

At some point either before or after seeing the film, you’ll be struck by what a silly idea it is. Two illusionists trying to learn the secrets of each other’s tricks and destroy each other’s careers sounds as dramatic and thrilling as an epic, obsessive battle for supremacy between two rival landscape gardeners. It’s hardly Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the exhaust shafts of Cloud City.

But Nolan has already proven himself one of the most inventive and original directors around with three well-conceived and well-executed films (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins), and in his hands, The Prestige becomes a gripping movie with a simply mind-bending story and a stunning finale.

In the tradition of the best broken narratives, the film only reveals the details necessary to draw you in, peeling back layers until the final minutes when you’re broadsided with one gasp-worthy moment after another.

Adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel, it’s the story of Angier (Jackman) and Borden (Bale), rival magicians who used to be friends before a tragic on-stage accident tore them apart.

Their lives descend into obsession with getting the upper hand on each other, trying to learn each other’s secrets by lies, deceit and betrayal in the process. Borden’s wife and daughter, his mysterious right hand man, the beautiful assistant (Johannson) who moves from one man’s employ to another, even Angier’s mentor Cutter (Caine) are all collateral damage in their private war against each other.

We learn in the beginning that Angier has been killed in a mishap performing a trick, and Borden is put on trial for his murder. Both men have left diaries; Borden reads Angier’s diary while in prison, which describes Angier reading Borden’s own notes.

It all culminates in the ultimate illusion; the Transported Man — where the magician disappears from one spot and reappears elsewhere faster than he could ever travel there.

Angier tracks down the enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla (Bowie, in a dignified and stately role), whom he believes has built a machine for Borden to perform the elusive trick. Tesla offers to build Angier one for a price, and the trick might not even be magic, but Tesla’s bizarre new science.

Bale and Jackman are a great onscreen pair although at times their accents are a little overdone, Jackman not quite there with a Boston-ish brogue and Bale overdoing the Limey thing to the point you expect him to spring worth with a hearty declaration of ‘lavverley jubberley’. The supporting cast is uniformly good and the soggy, jaundiced visual style is actually reminiscent of Batman Begins, although not out of place.

But The Prestige is all about a way to tell a story and the on-stage act it emulates. Like a good magic trick, it’s three acts we know are somehow staged, but where the final coda astounds us all the same.

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