Prestige, The

Set in the Victorian era, Christopher Nolan’s “The Presige” is a period mystery-thriller about two magicians whose competition sparks a powerful rivalry that builds ups to some unexpectedly lethal effects.

This bizarre, convoluted movie, which boasts (or suffers from) lots of twists and turns and ups and downs, deals with the escalating battle between Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a flashy, sophisticated magician who’s a consummate entertainer, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a rough-edged purist magician who is a genius but lacks the panache to showcase his magical ideas.

Again collaborating with his brother Jonathan, the screenplay is based on the highly acclaimed novel by Christopher Priest. For this picture, Nolan has assembled a formidable cast that includes two of today’s most compelling stars, both of whom vets of franchise pictures. Jackman is still better known for his portrayal of Wolverine in the “X-Men movies,” and Bale most recently starred as the latest Caped Crusader in Nolan’s “Batman Begins.”

The cast also benefits from Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”), icon David Bowie, as the groundbreaking electrical genius Nikola Tesla, and some promising newcomers like Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo.

It takes at least a reel to warm up to the movie, and another one to get involved, but the intricacies of this plot-driven movie finally kick in and the second half fulfills expectations and delivers secrets and lies, magic and illusions, doppelgangers and siblings.

How would the public related to this prestigious item is anyone’s guess. It’s probably a coincidence that Nolan’s film follows another period mystery about the world of magic, “The Illusionist,” set in Vienna, which surprisingly became a hit this fall, when sold as a romantic drama.

“The Prestige” begins and ends symmetrically, with the voice-over narration by Cutter, the magician’s ingeneur, the man who designs illusions behind-the-scenes. In his distinctively resonant and immediately recognizable voice, Michael Caine tells a little girl the motto of the film, which also explains its title. “Every great magic trick consists of three acts. 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 his 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 Presitge: 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.”

Those who have followed Nolan’s career, from the modest debut of “Following” through the spectacular noir “Memento” (still his best film), know that his work provides a field day for film scholars (like me) who use the structuralist and semiological perspectives.

The above may be a strictly academic issue, but I’d like to point out that the Nolans have used the same principles of Caine’s voice-over in carefully constructing their script, which contains many secrets and shocking moments of revelation in unfolding in a windy, surprise-fill tale of the dueling magicians. “The Prestige” is an intricately mounted thriller, in which every mystery counts, in which illusions permeate every action, and nothing is quite what it seemsexcept the primal human drives of competition, jealousy and revenge

The Nolans are good in delineating the context, the rapidly-changing, turn-of-the-century London, a time that precedes the movies as a form of entertainment, when magician are the idols and celebs of the highest order.

Roughly the same age, two ambitious magicians set out to carve their own path to fame. Angier and Borden start out as admiring friend and partners. However, when their biggest trick goes terribly awry, and Angier loses his beloved wife in what appears to be a stage accident, they become enemies for life. From that point on, each man is singlemindedly motivated to outdo, upend, and destroy the otherto the bitter end.

Trick by trick, show by show, their ferocious competition builds until it knows no bounds. At one point, Angier resorts to utilizing the fantastical new powers of electricity and the scientific brilliance of Nikola Tesla (Bowie).

Meanwhile, we get glimpses of the two men’s personal lives, which are intertwined with their professional ones. In fact, the lives of all those around themespecially the womenhang in the balance, or rather imbalance.

As he showed in his previous films, Nolan likes the vocabularly of film noir. Here, he imbues “The Prestige” with noir themes, such as obsession and betrayal, specifically in the femme fatale played by Scarlett Johnasson as the woman who comes between Angier and Borden.

And as in every film of his, Nolan creates an intriguing relationship between the film’s narrative form and the visual and technical devices of presenting them. Clearly, Nolan relates to the audience on screen that attends these performances as he does to the audience off screen that is watching his movie in contempo settings.

The tone of the film is appropriately dark and increasingly tragic, considering the trajectory of the two magicians and the way it all began. As Borden says in voice-over early on: “We were two young men at the start of a great career. Two young men devoted to an illusion. Two young men who never intended to hurt anyone.” What ensues is a tale of obsession and revenge that shows, how despite nave beginnings and good intentions, careers and lives often take their own unexpected paths–to some detrimental effects.

Unfolding as a series of flashbacks–and flashbacks within flashbacks–“The Prestige” is told from multiple points of view. The transition among flashbacks is not always clear and occasionally it also disrupts the natural flow of events. While Caine’s Cutter is the privileged narrator who knows more about the proceedings than either magician, we also get Angier’s and Borden’s POVs through notebooks and diaries that each man keeps or tries to steal from the other (I can’t elaborate more on this point without spoiling the fun).

The strong parallels between the role of the magician and the role of the filmmaker is used both in the text and the subtext of the film. Fillmmakers like magicians manipulate their audiences through the selective way they transmit information, using their own techniques, blind alleys, and red herrings to achieve their result-entertaining the viewers, even if it means cheating and fooling them (just ask Hitchcock about it).

“The Prestige” is a movie for viewers who complain that American movies have no longer plots, that most movies are based on one idea or premise. Defying these notions, Nolan’s picture is rife with sleight-of-hand shocks and revelations, delveing into a riveting, unknown world where the farthest and darkest edges of faith, trust, and the possible are tested and contested.

Whether viewers perceive “The Prestige” as intricately complex or just unnecessarily complicated would depend to a large degree on their willingness to suspend disbelief for two hours, and immerse themselves in the idiosyncratic world of magic, with its own set of values, norms, and a very fluid code of ethics and honor.

If movies about magic constitute a genre or sub-genre, then “The Prestige is a good sampler. I don’t recall any movie that offers so much info about the life of magicians, on stage and off, the ideas and techniques that dominate their work behind the scenes; you will learn a lot about how tricks are orchestrated.

Nolan is an accomplished director who doesnt repeat himself. Each of his five features boasts a different look and feel. In “The Prestige,” he creates a mysterious, yet vividly contemporary, portrait of the torch-lit heyday of London’s magic scene, that benefits immensely from the talents behind the camera, specifically lenser Wally Pfister (Oscar-nominated for “Batman Begins”), production designer Nathan Crowley, and editor Lee Smith, all of whom have worked with Nolan before. Special kudos also go to the period costumes, designed by Joan Bergin (Emmy nominee for TV’s “David Copperfield”).

Films of similar interest

While watching Michael Caine in “The Prestige,” I flashbacked to 1972’s “Sleuth,” the Joseph Mankiewicz two-character movie, based on Anthony Shaffer’s hit stage play, in which Caine and Laurence Olivier gave Oscar-nominated roles. Olivier plays a wealthy, snobbish mystery writer who devises a nasty plot, full of tricks and masks, to get even with his wife’s Cockney lover (Caine), only to realize that his adversary may be smarter and more than a simple match for him.

“The Prestige” is obviously a richer, denser movie, with at least a dozen characters. However, the rivalry in its center and the tricks used by Angier and Borden to outdo and destroy each other bears some thematic resemblance to “Sleuth.”

End note

In a statement to the press, Chris Nolan has written: “The Prestige is a mystery structured as a cinematic magic trick. In order to allow audiences to fully enjoy the unfolding of the story, we respectfully ask that you not reveal too much about the deceptions at the heart of the film.” I fully respect his request.