Saturday 9 December 2017

Movie Review: The Prestige (2006)

A battle-of-the-magicians drama, The Prestige delves into the psychology of a personal war between two men, but also outsmarts itself in an ill-conceived search for a final flourish.

The film intercuts events that take place over several time periods. In linear form, the setting is London in the 1890s, and magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) rise to prominence around the same time under the guidance of stage engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine). Initially friends, the relationship between them is severely poisoned when Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies in an on-stage mishap that may have been inadvertently caused by Borden.

Both men embark on professional careers. Angier is more aristocratic and has stage showmanship but not as much skill. The working class Borden is technically brilliant but has poor presence. He marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and starts a family, and with the help of his engineer Fallon develops an on-stage transportation trick that baffles audiences. Angier, Cutter and assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) are determined to learn the trick behind Borden's success. The rivalry leads to a shooting, kidnapping, espionage and a side-trip to Colorado, where Angier will meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and learn about the amazing possibilities offered by the emerging field of electricity.

Directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan with his brother Jonathan, The Prestige (the title is a reference to the third act in every magic trick) joined The Illusionist in making 2006 the year of the magicians' brief screen revival. Similar to Neil Burger's effort, Nolan creates a reasonably absorbing narrative and visually rich environment, but stumbles in pushing too hard towards illogical territory.

The world of magic is compelling enough without resorting to absolute fantasy. In his final act, Nolan allows his plot to rush headlong into ridiculous science fiction territory, severely undermining plenty of the good work invested in the set-up. There may some cheap enjoyment to be had in watching Tesla's machine releasing crackling sparks of electricity. The byproduct of all the on-stage zapping does not belong in a film about magic, and the film effectively cheats its way to a ridiculous resolution.

Which is a pity, because there is plenty to admire in The Prestige. Despite Nolan's determination to continuously hop back and forth between three time periods, the animosity between Borden and Angier creates a cutting edge, and the ever more dangerous tit-for-tat reprisals in the world of magic tricks are compelling. It is quickly apparent that this being the world of illusion every seemingly genuine action is hiding another more surreptitious intent, and it's relatively easy to pick up on the film's major twist.

Although none of the characters are worthy of much sympathy, the performances are intense, ensuring that Angier, Borden and Cutter and memorable people dedicated to excellence in their profession. Jackman infuses Angier with the fortitude that second best does not mean he will stop trying, while Bale gives Borden the requisite passion to prove himself the greatest despite his humble origins. David Bowie is magnetic in a brief but pivotal role as Nikola Tesla, although a sub-plot about a whole separate rivalry between Tesla and Edison is short-changed into a muddle.

The Prestige mostly delivers on the pledge and the turn, but ironically overreaches in its third and final act.

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