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Prestige, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 20 October 2006
“The Prestige,” from the novel by Christopher Priest, is the second movie of the year (“The Illusionist” was first) about 19th century magicians. Another, “Smoke and Mirrors,” is (long) waiting in the wings. Is it Period Magician Day already? And I forgot to buy cards.

Christopher Nolan, who directed “Memento” and “Batman Returns,” is again the director here, and co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, evidently changing the novel along the way. “The Prestige” is a very handsome film, photographed in dark tones and wide screen by Wally Pfister, with inventive production design by Nathan Crowley. Though convincingly set partly in Europe in the 19th century, the movie was shot almost entirely in Southern California, a rarity these days.

It stars very busy Hugh Jackman and almost equally busy Christian Bale as rival magicians. Jackman is Robert Angier, later The Great Danton; Bale is working-class Alfred Borden, later The Professort. Angier is the lesser magician but a suave, accomplished stage performer who knows how to direct and misdirect an audience. Borden is the better magician, but a bore on stage. They are both fascinated by other magicians, though we see little of this—we should have seen more. Cutter (Michael Caine), is Angier’s “ingeneur,” a brilliant creator of magic stagecraft and tricks, who has no desire at all to go on stage.

As the film begins, it’s late in their lives. Angier performs a gaudy, electrified stunt—man-made lightning bolts crashing all around and through him—which climaxes with him falling through a concealed trap door. But he falls into a locked water tank, staring helplessly out at Borden, who watches the other man die. Borden is put on trial for his life, his sole consolation that he now has the notebook of his late rival to read before he’s hanged.

Like so many this year, this movie is just too damned long. It’s also lugubriously paced, with long dialogue scenes and not nearly enough time devoted to magician stagecraft and tricks. It takes itself very, very seriously, and rarely allows any lightness. It’s a terrific-looking movie, with excellent art direction and cinematography, but it’s as heavy as a lead rabbit. Also, Scarlett Johansson simply disappears toward the end of the movie; something else I presume we were supposed to overlook.

The story is told almost entirely in flashback, first from Borden reading Angier’s notebooks then, in that flashback, it flashes back to what Angier finds in Borden’s notebooks. This intricate structure works well, but both of the notebooks end in precisely the same manner, which is one trick too many.
Chronologically, eager young Borden participates in one of Angier’s acts, in which his fiancée Julia (Piper Perabo) is tied hand and foot, then suspended in a tank of water, which is then covered in a curtain. (Magician Ricky Jay is on hand in these scenes with no explanation for his presence and no follow-up.) The curtain is whipped aside and hey presto, there’s Julia, outside the tank, holding the ropes. (This is a variation on one of Houdini’s most famous tricks.)

Borden, who seems to be working for Angier (this is never made clear), backstage urges Angier to try other, more difficult tricks, like using a different knot to tie Julia. There is always a possibility of something going wrong; as soon as Julia is lowered into the tank each time, Cutter, waiting in the wings, picks up a fire axe and times the trick. One night, something does go wrong. Julia drowns, even though Cutter smashes open the tank. (This takes many blows; why didn’t they use glass that could more easily be broken?)

The problem was that she couldn’t slip out of the knots—which were tied by Borden and Angier, pretending to be volunteers from the audience. Borden claims he doesn’t remember which knot he used—this is another of the movie’s many hard-to-believe ideas—and leaves to go out on his own.

Time passes. Borden is working in seedy pubs with his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall) as his assistant. Angier, with Cutter, is struggling to put his life back together. Despite Sarah’s misgivings, Borden insists on doing the famous catching-a-bullet trick, which in real life cost at least two magicians their lives. One night while the trick is being set up, a volunteer approaches whom we, but (improbably again) not Borden, recognize as Angier. He shoots Borden in the palm with a real bullet, making it much harder for him to do any tricks. From this point on, Borden is rarely without a red rubber ball, which he squeezes to strengthen his crippled hand.

More time passes. Borden has worked his way up the entertainment ladder. He has a spectacular new trick in which he seems to teleport himself across the stage: he goes in one door, tossing that ball; he instantly comes out a door on the other side, catching the ball. It’s a fabulous trick, and Angier is desperate to learn how he does it, sweeping aside Cutter’s suggestion that perhaps Borden uses a double.

Seeing no other way, Angier himself employs a double—he hires a drunken, has-been actor (also Jackman, having a grand time), who resembles him, and stages his own version of Borden’s amazing act. He’s aided by new assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), with whom he falls in love—then sends to work for Borden, to pass on to Angier the secret of his “transported man” trick.

In real history, magicians did this sort of thing all the time. They’d scrutinize the acts of rivals, hoping to figure out how the stunt was done. If they couldn’t, they’d use people like Cutter to create another version of the stunt, and present it in their act, often under very similar or identical titles. All this was clearly the jumping-off point for Christopher Priest.

Borden, however, finds a way to spectacularly screw up his rival’s act. Angier heads for Colorado Springs, hoping to meet Nikola Tesla (an improvably but effectively cast David Bowie). At first, Tesla’s assistant (Andy Serkis) refuses to allow Angier access to the great experimenter, but when Edison’s thugs come sniffing around, circumstances change. The lofty, ethereal Tesla agrees to create the “transporting man” illusion for Angier.

Oh, enough with the plot. Movies like this often have intricate plots while the story lies elsewhere, as it does here—the story is actually about the personalities of these two men who should have been friends doing their best to destroy each other out of personal and professional envy. And an exciting, fascinating movie could have been made out of that.

But not “The Prestige.” It’s slow-paced and talky, with mostly repellent characters. Borden and Angier are ambiguous but ultimately dislikable for their treacherous behavior toward each other. We don’t really care which of the two wins. Jackman is the more likeable, audience-pleasing actor of the two, but his Angier is cold-hearted and arrogant, driven by an obsessive need for fame and glory. Borden is dogged, a hard worker but unimaginative. His wife is driven to distraction by his insistence on aiming himself at overthrowing Angier, even after their daughter is born. And Borden is peculiarly inconsistent about telling Sarah he loves her; some days he says he does, some he says he doesn’t. That’d drive anyone bonkers. And it involves another extremely hard-to-accept plot surprise.

Perhaps “Memento” was the fluke. It’s a very good movie, but its quality lies largely in its novel structure, telling a story backwards. “Batman Begins” was a handsome, well-produced movie with too many father figures that really didn’t quite come together, and Batman entering the story too late. Christopher Nolan may simply not be a very good director; certainly there’s little about “The Prestige” to suggest he’s anything other than an ambitious but unskilled enthusiast for dark ideas. “The Prestige” is a grim, gloomy movie with a grim, gloomy ending, and several guessable surprises. It’s a good showcase for Hugh Jackman and the technical team; Bowie is intriguing as Tesla, who really was a mysterious figure; the 19th century stagecraft on display is very interesting. But there’s too much effort shown, and too little lightness involved in showing it.

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