The Prestige

The Prestige 

Film review by: Witney Seibold 


SPOILER ALERT: This will be an impossible film to discuss without openly giving away some vital plot details, so if you plan on seeing it, don’t read this review. I will, repeat, will, give away the ending.  


 If it wasn’t obvious with “Batman Begins,” one of the best films of 2005, director Christopher Nolan has, with his new thriller “The Prestige,” proven himself to be a skilled and intriguing director. “The Prestige” is skilled and gorgeous. It is suspenseful, the entire cast gives good performances, and the twists are shocking and clever enough that: a) one would not be able to safely predict them, and b) are not totally contrived plot redefinitions that many filmmakers seem to be so fond of (see “The Usual Suspects” or any film by Brian DePalma to get this). It has violence and sex and rivalry and interesting character arcs. 


But… y’know? It just didn’t stay with me. The film had me up until the introduction of the magical duplicating machine invented by Nikola Tesla (David Bowie!). In “Batman Begins,” Nolan treated the otherwise cartoonish reality of Batman rather seriously, making the mythos seem fresh and believable. He brings a similar sensibility to “The Prestige,” giving a rather comicbook story a more urgent and mature feeling. But when the film began to stray from the mechanics and showmanship involved in a simple (or, as the case may be, complex) magic trick into the realm of fanciful impossibility, it lost a lot of its own believability. I can suspend my disbelief really high, but when the film sets me up one way, I get a little incredulous when it tries to knock me down in a different way. 


The story: popular magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is in prison for the murder of his rival, magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). A man named Cutter (Michael Caine), Angier’s assistant, explains a lot of the mechanics of magic to us, including what the title means. In a flashback, we learn that these two men were once partners, acting as audience plants for a magician friend of theirs (real life sleight-of-hand artists and collector of arcane knowledge Ricky Jay, and I think I was the only one in my audience to spot him). Borden, one evening, ties the wrong kind of knot, leading to the death of Angier’s wife/Lovely Assistant (Piper Perabo, finally in something at least high profile). Her death sets off the rivalry. Angier manages to take two of Borden’s fingers as revenge.           


Borden is reading Angier’s diary in the film, a diary full of secret codes and secrets and what have you. The confusing part is that in the flashback read from Angier’s diary, we see Angier reading Borden’s diary, also in code. So we have flashbacks within flashbacks, either of which may only be one or the other’s view of real events. It takes a while from this narrative rigmarole to clear up.  


Time passes, Borden marries a timid young lady (Rebecca Hall), and Angier begins sleeping with Scarlett Johansson (lucky dog).  


The rivalry between the two men heats up when Borden seems able to perform a trick called “The Transported Man” in which he seems to teleport across the stage. Angier tries to duplicate the trick with only moderate success. He uses a double, you see, and there are various hilarious moments with the drunk chosen to stand in for him. Jackman’s performances through these scenes are stellar. It is revealed around this part of the film that Angier is the better showman, able to take up a stage and sell a trick, while Borden is the better magician, able to perform the trick better. Of course the friendly rivalry grows to obsession. 


And then the film starts to lose me. Angier seeks out the help of Nikola Tesla (and his Brooklyn assistant played by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame) to create a real-life teleportation machine, extending the trick from showmanship or trickery into real “magic.” The machine, however, does not merely transport a person, but creates a fully functional duplicate that it transports a certain distance. I’ve read about Nikola Tesla before, and I’m kind of familiar with the things he invented. He was a mad genius. He did create some freaky things like robotics and alternating current and radio. He did want to give free electricity to everybody. He did make sci-fi lookin’ machines that shot lightning every which way. But as far as I know, Tesla did not ever try to make a teleporter or a duplicator or any such thing. There’s a scene in the film where Tesla picks up a light bulb, and it simply lights up. Using Telsa as the “mad scientist” who creates the wonky impossible machine is a cheap dramatic device.  


No discredit to David Bowie, though, who plays the part well, and, according to one of my friends, even quoted his own song lyrics.  


How much does one sacrifice for one’s art, and how much is too much? Well, Borden, it is revealed at the end, was able to perform so many tricks so well because he was actually twin brothers. Only one twin loves his wife, though, and the duality drove her to suicide. He was such a devoted performer that he would switch off with his double, like Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers” all the time, sometimes randomly. So those two (one?) were immoral bastards. Angier, on the other hand, would make a double of himself every night on stage, and then drown him below stage secretly, while the original would appear at the back of the theater. One drives people crazy. One kills a man (essentially himself) every day. It’s when Angier vanishes after on performance that Borden is arrested for drowning a double.


The problem with this denouement (that both men are immoral) is that it’s not as big as the film has led us to believe. The story has been so complicated, the length of the film so long, the performances and photography suggest so much gravitas that this rather simple moral solution left me a little unsatisfied. The film was merely bigger than it needed to be. 




But some may call me a nitpicker. The film is still, as I said, engaging and fun, and really well made by a very talented director and team of actors. You certainly won’t be wasting an evening on it.  


This is interesting: Christian Bale is Welsh and plays a Welshman, and Michael Caine is British and plays a Brit. The rest of the cast, however, do not play their own nationalities: Jackman is an Aussie and plays an American (and a Brit). Johansson is American and plays a Brit. Perabo is Canadian and plays a Brit. Serkis is a Kiwi and plays an American. And David Bowie is a Brit but plays an Austrian.

Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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