Judging from its trailer, cast, and dynamic director (Christopher Nolan of “Memento” and “Batman Begins”), “The Prestige” appears to be a recipe for intrigue, shock, and virtuoso performances. But, for a film that revolves around the world of theatrical magic in turn-of-the-century Europe, it is, ironically, mostly smoke and mirrors.
“The Prestige” follows two promising apprentice magicians, the brooding yet brave Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and the suave yet safer Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), as they embark on rival careers.
“You’ve got to get you’re hands dirty if you want to achieve the impossible,” their magician master Cutter (Michael Caine), advises early in the film. His two prodigies seem brainwashed by this doctrine, as they don unconvincing disguises and sabotage each others’ acts—leaving behind them a trail of casualties.
Bale and Jackman have both entrancingly played ruthless characters before (Bale in “American Psycho” and Jackman in “X-Men”), but in “The Prestige” their performances are shrouded by the film’s special effects.
One of the film’s few surprises is that its most memorable performance belongs to David Bowie (yes, the glam rock icon) as inventor Nikola Tesla. Unlike the protagonists in their various, ineffective disguises, Bowie is barely recognizable in his portrayal of reserved, elderly gentlemen.
Caine and Scarlett Johansson (as Angier’s beautiful assistant) give their usual caliber of performances—Johansson is sexy and seems anachronistically modern, while Caine is a harmonious and grounding presence, despite his overly dramatic lines.
Nolan’s film generally feels melodramatic. He visually implies that the ruthless obsession of the magician’s rivalry is symptomatic of magic’s inherent danger. When Borden’s wife Olivia hangs herself because she can no longer bear his overriding obsession with magic, Nolan depicts her hanging amidst Borden’s bird cages—equating her with the birds Borden secretly kills for his disappearing bird trick.
Oddly, however, magic soon seems to takes an secondary role to science, when Angier’s signature act employs a science-fictional machine that defies even contemporary laws of physics.
While multiple characters refer to this scientific innovation as “real magic,” Nolan seems to be sending a message about the potential danger of unbridled technological progress. In scenes depicting old-fashioned stage magic, the sets, costumes and close-ups are beautifully lit and full of rich colors and textures. Scenes involving Angier’s science-driven act, however, are dark and shadowy, permeated by a supernatural haze.
Whether or not the film is more about magic or technology is just one of its many vagaries. The narrative’s general haziness is, in part, dictated by its screenplay (adapted from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan) but Nolan’s customary technique of cutting back and forth in time—made famous by its success in “Memento”—contributes to the muddling of his messages here. This style creates captivating suspense and intrigue at times in both films; but unlike in “Memento,” where out-of-sequence scenes build up to a revelatory conclusion, in “The Prestige,” Nolan intertwines too many strings that fail to form a coherent pattern by the end.
The film would have benefited, if Nolan had focused more on his own apprentices, the talented Bale, Jackman and Caine—delving more into the psyches of their characters, instead of wasting their talents on an overly complicated plot.
Bottom Line: Unfortunately for the Nolan brothers, the excessive twists and turns of their “Prestige” leave the audience more confused than awed. Not quite movie magic.
—Reviewer Nina L. Vizcarrondo can be reached at email@example.com.
Movie Review: "The Prestige"