The Prestige Review
Christopher Nolan's The Prestige is a compelling and enormously atmospheric piece of melodrama set in Victorian London, in the days when stage magicians were like movie stars and the public queued up to be dazzled by tricks and illusions instead of special effects.
Two young magicians with ambitions to be stars are Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). They meet while they're both working as assistants to a third-rate hack of a conjurer. Angier is a slumming aristocrat who's changed his name to avoid embarrassing his family. Borden is an ambitious working class lad who sees magic as his ticket to riches.
A grudging friendship between the two turns sour when a mistake by the arrogant Borden leads to a tragedy. Angier retaliates violently and Borden in turn hits back by sabotaging one of Angier's early shows. As the two men become popular stage acts, so their rivalry grows until it becomes a mutual obsession, consuming them and the various women in their lives (Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson).
When Borden comes up with a startling new trick called The Transported Man, which wows audiences and defies explanation, Angier vows to learn the secret, copy the trick and top it. Little does he know what this will cost both himself and Borden.
There's not a lot going on below the surface of this dark tale, adapted from Christopher Priest's novel by director Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan. Like the shows put on by its characters, The Prestige is a box of tricks designed to draw us in, mislead us and knock our socks off with its surprises.
As a piece of entertainment though, it's top notch: well crafted and performed, highly enjoyable and executed with real showmanship. The screenplay, which jumps back and forth between different parts of the story, is absorbing right from the start, the stormy relationship between Angier and Borden is gripping stuff and many of the surprises are truly surprising. I did guess Borden's secret though - like M Night Shyamalan in The Sixth Sense, Nolan has to be a bit too tricky with his camera to keep the twist concealed.
Technically, The Prestige is flawless. Victorian London is recreated beautifully by the production designers. Their work, Nolan's direction and Wally Pfister's cinematography make this a pleasure to watch. However, the sets and camerawork never distract from the story's focus: its two anti-heroes.
The parts are well played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, actors best known for playing comic book characters. Bale has the plum role as the thuggish, single-minded Borden but Jackman holds his own as Angier, who is initially more sympathetic but reveals his own dark side. Their relationship, influenced I think by class rivalry as much as personal hatred, keeps us riveted even when the plot becomes more outlandish and unbelievable towards the end.
The supporting cast is very strong. Michael Caine does another fine star turn as Angier's friend and prop manufacturer, while David Bowie uses his unique screen presence to good effect as the inventor of a mysterious machine that becomes the film's MacGuffin. Scarlett Johansson has curiously little to do, playing a stage assistant to Angier and later Borden, but she does a perfectly good job. Possibly the best performance comes from Rebecca Hall as Borden's wife. She's the most human character in the film.
The Prestige may disappoint those who were hoping Christopher Nolan might make something a little deeper in between Batman films, perhaps more along the lines of Insomnia. I think most audiences will appreciate it and enjoy it though. It's a magic show. "The prestige" is magician's slang for the surprise at the end of the trick and the title is appropriate. The crowds at Angier and Borden's shows would have left debating how they pulled off The Transported Man and you'll have the same fun discussing how Nolan pulled off his twists. I could hear people discussing them all the way to the bus stop.