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Jay Richardson

Published November 10th, 2006 | by Jay Richardson

The Prestige Review

Classification: 12a Director: Christopher Nolan Rating: 3.5/5

“Every great magic trick consists of three acts,” we’re told in The Prestige. “The first act is called The Pledge; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn; The magician makes the ordinary something do something extraordinary. Now, if you’re looking for the secret you won’t find it, that’s why there’s a third act called The Prestige; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.”

Unfortunately, it’s during the final act that The Prestige fails to deliver, the finale dropping the curtain on a promising story with an unsatisfactory flourish. For all it’s concern with human obsession and director Christopher Nolan’s track record presenting it in films like Memento and Batman Begins, the film lacks a genuine soul and its complex intrigues, three-part timeline and grindingly mechanical plot twists ultimately untwist in vain.

Even so, there’s much to enjoy in this tale of vengeance between rival London illusionists at the end of the 19th Century. In the earliest timeline, we meet Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), trick inventor Cutter (Michael Caine) and Rupert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), assistants to a journeyman magician (played by real-life master Ricky Jay). When a trick goes wrong, possibly due to Alfred’s negligence (though the film contrives uncertainty about this), Julia is killed and Angier swears revenge on Alfred. The two pursue their careers and blood feud across the city, aristocratic Angier the superior showman, rough and ready Alfred the better magician, each inflicting physical harm on the other through diabolical infiltrations of the other’s act. Caught between the pair are Cutter and Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), a magician’s assistant drawn to both men, even when, in Alfred’s case, he’s married to Sarah (Rebecca Hall).

In the second timeline, a science-fiction element arrives with the introduction of real-life scientist Nikol Tesla (David Bowie), as Angier tracks him to Colorado Springs to ask for his help building an incredible trick. Finally, the narrative moves to Alfred’s involvement in Angier’s death, when he is tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Inbetween, the film flits through periods as each magician uncovers revelations and deceptions in the other’s diary.

For all its many twists and misdirections, The Prestige is deceptively easy to watch, though in retrospect the manipulations feel calculated at the expense of character depth and the biggest revelation arrives as no surprise at all. Given his previous track record on celluloid, David Bowie, is, astonishingly, the best thing in it, yet the plot goes somewhat awry with his appearance. Caine is again solid as the venerable mentor attempting to do the right thing, as is Johansson, though she’s hardly stretching herself in these endless lust interest roles. Rather more compelling is Hall’s anguished portrayal of a wife losing her husband to obsession.

As the leads, Jackman and Bale bring star quality. The latter’s working class accent initially jars, but settles down with familiarity. Neither Angier or Arthur is an easy man to like, a failing of the film, but the actors do their best and make the pair’s extreme focus believable.

The Prestige looks great and there’s too much class involved for it to be anything but entertaining. Even so, a suspicion that Nolan overstretched and overdeveloped his story is inescapable. You leave wondering about the great film this could have been.


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