Just as the recent Truman Capote biopic "Infamous
" had the misfortune of being released only a year after the remarkably similar "Capote
," "The Prestige" is the second film to arrive in only two months set within the world of magicians during the turn of the twentieth century. In most cases, these sorts of cinematic dopplegangers find more financial success the first time around. By the second movie, audiences are more akin to feel as if they have already seen the story once and don't need to revisit the same topic. As with "Infamous
," however, "The Prestige" is the superior effort over "The Illusionist
," which fell into the trap of being dreary and reminiscent of a made-for-cable film.
"The Prestige" is a complex revenge drama and an intriguing mystery that, like the old magic act standby, attempts to pull a rabbit or two out of its hat by the end. When they come, the twists are at once sorely predictable (the climactic sleight of hand will partially be familiar for anyone who has seen "The Illusionist
"), initially perplexing, and ultimately quite clever. Writer-director Christopher Nolan (2005's "Batman Begins
") and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan demand upon the audience that close attention be paid, lest the viewer desires leaving the theater scratching their head at all of the dueling trickery on display. In all of the details dedicated to fleshing out the complicated narrative layers, the picture is clever and, at least on the surface, satisfying. Like any magic performance, though, the allure is somehow lost the second its secrets are figured out.
In 1897 London, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are ambitious up-and-coming magicians who have been taken under the wings of mentor Cutter (Michael Caine). As his protégés, Robert and Alfred are pulled from the audience each night to assist in making it seem like they are tying the ropes around assistant Julia's (Piper Perabo) wrists and ankles before plunging her into a tank of water. When the trick goes awry one night after Alfred may or may not have accidentally tied real knots in the rope, Julia, who happens to also be Robert's beloved wife, tragically drowns. This event sparks a nasty years-long war between Robert and Alfred. As both of them rise in artistic expertise and popularity among the masses, they are hounded by an eye-for-an-eye mentality that leaves them desperate to steal each other's secrets and sabotage their careers and lives.
The differences between "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist
" are more widespread than those between the aforementioned "Infamous
" and "Capote
." Whereas "The Illusionist
" seemed to concentrate on a possibly deadly love triangle and its magical aspects felt like an afterthought, "The Prestige" is the opposite, digging deep into the ins and outs of what it takes to be a magician and create increasingly elaborate tricks. In this respect, the film is a fascinating study of the concentration, time, energy, and even madness that it takes to be a master magician, with Robert and Alfred choosing to forfeit honest relationships in exchange for lives that require they be based in secrecy and lies.
Like in "The Illusionist
," there is a love triangle of sortsRobert's feisty assistant and lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to spy on Alfred by becoming his assistant, and starts to fall for him in the processbut here neither affair is developed beyond the minimal necessities and little comes of it in the third act. This subplot is indicative of one of the flaws of "The Prestige," which is director Christopher Nolan's tendency to tell rather than show the many interpersonal relationships of the characters. Because of this, the movie's humane side is left lacking next to the savvier and detailed mechanics of the tricks themselves. "It's unnatural for a person to be so cold," Olivia tells Alfred in one late scene, and she could just as well have been talking about the film. If the goal of "The Prestige" is to depict the inherent loneliness in a magician's life, it succeeds, but this choice is at the expense of giving the viewer characters who are likable and compassionate. Mostly, Robert and Alfred are selfish, childish and borderline-psychotic in the lengths they go to make each other's life a living hell.
If one was forced to make a choice between the two, Hugh Jackman's (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
") portrayal of Robert Angier is more sympathetic than Christian Bale's (2004's "The Machinist
") effectively snide turn as Alfred Borden. They both have a right to be perturbed, but the death of a wife is perhaps the greater loss over a couple severed fingers. The performances from Jackman and Bale are stronghas either one ever been bad before?but there isn't enough depth presented at the screenplay level for their fates to mean much to the viewer. As Cutter, Michael Caine (2005's "The Weatherman
") is excellent at showing the power and worldly experience he has over Robert and Alfred, but, again, isn't offered a chance to play a fully fleshed-out character. Rounding out the principals, Scarlett Johansson (2006's "The Black Dahlia
") brings sparks of tenacity and life to Olivia that are nowhere to be found on the written page; her role is relatively superfluous to the central action.
Atmospherically lensed with a propensity for fog-drenched landscapes by Wally Pfister (2003's "The Italian Job
"), "The Prestige" is a challenging drama that rewards the viewer's close eye and adopts a slick pace that keeps the film moving forward at all times. Slowing down might have helped certain aspects in the long runthe characters are all painted with broad strokes and the central conflict between Robert and Alfred is a little too paint-by-numbersbut director Christopher Nolan's nimble filmmaking prowess nonetheless aids in an entertainingly classy production. Although the film's conclusionthe prestige of the title, if you willdoesn't add up to what is anticipated from the setup, it's the getting-there where the fun is to be had.