A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #24


2006, PG-13, 135 mins.

Robert Angier: Hugh Jackman / Alfred Borden: Christian Bale / Cutter: Michael Caine / Olivia: Scarlett Johansson / Nikola Tesla: David Bowie / Mr. Alley: Andy Serkis

Directed by Christopher Nolan /  Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan /  Based on the novel by Christopher Priest


THE PRESTIGE is an exploration into competition and obsession, which is why I think it is far from being more than just another standard, run-of-the mill foray into the genre of the period drama and thriller.  Of course, obsession is a theme that writer/director Christopher Nolan knows how to handle with impeccable restraint and fortitude. 

His first feature, the absolutely ingenious MEMENTO, focused on one man’s lonely and problematic quest to discover his wife’s killer.  In his follow-up film, the terribly under-appreciated INSOMNIA, Nolan crafted two interlocking stories of a killer’s desperate and vile impulses and the tormented cop that yearns to track him down while battling his own dreaded inner demons.  And, yes, last year’s BATMAN BEGINS also demonstrated Nolan's auteur skills as he infused some much needed energy and vitality into its title character, a child orphan who vengefully devotes his life to vigilante justice.  Fanaticism permeates his body of work.                  

THE PRESTIGE is yet another terrifically mounted thriller that only Nolan seems to know how to forge these days.  It’s taut, tense, dark, and foreboding, not to mention thematically complex, and emotionally moody.  It also has rich and well-drawn characters that help propel the story forward.  Far too many contemporary thrillers use a bit too much sleight of hand tricks to bait in audiences and inevitably cheat them.  THE PRESTIGE reveals such a supreme confidence and mastery of narrative, performances, and production design that one is willing to forgive its third act, which kind of degenerates more into fantasy than reality.  Yet, make no mistake about it, Nolan’s film is sumptuous, gorgeous to look at, and a real standout for it’s two main stars.  This is a thriller that is more absorbing on a character level than on a thrill level, where well-realized personas take center stage and not the painfully manufactured moments of shock and awe. 

The true epicenter of the film lies in its title alone.  As one character very early on in the film explains, “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 is 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.''

The film itself works in much of the same manner.  Its first act – the pledge – introduces us to the setting and characters.  In the second act – the turn – the story and participants enter the domain of the extraordinary, and the final act – the prestige – reveals the films shocking secrets.  However, unlike a real magician’s three-act performance, THE PRESTIGE goes at length in its closing minutes to explain all of the answers to the film’s puzzles.  This approach, in some ways, feels a bit counterproductive.  Perhaps a more satisfying - and eventually intoxicating - choice would have been to make the audience try to find out answers for themselves.  THE PRESTIGE could have been hauntingly ambiguous in its conclusion, but instead we have characters spout out in great detail their motivations and methods.  In some ways, it is this aspect of the film that works the least successfully; it comes across as superficial.  Nevertheless, it is what precedes it that makes most of the journey into the film so alluring.

The film also encapsulates its solid three-act form (again, reinforcing the same structure of a magic trick) by telling a story that follows three tangents).  In the first – and earliest – we are introduced to Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, in his best performance) and Alfred Borden (the always dependable Christian Bale) who are assistants to a magician.  At least at first, Angier and Borden start off their conjurer careers as apprentices to Cutter (the always wonderful Michael Caine), who is a magician’s ingeneur, or the one that creates the illusions behind what the audience sees up on the stage for all of the shows.  Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo, still with her English accent intact from IMAGINE ME AND YOU) is also along for the ride and performs in Alfred and Robert's mentor’s stage shows. 

However, something terrible happens during one of the performances.  It seems that – as a result of Alfred’s negligence - Julia dies horribly during one of the shows.  Robert, of course, is completely enraged when he discovers that his friend and colleague may have had a hand – albeit accidentally – in his wife’s demise.  It is here where the film takes a radical shift in tone and theme.  The two men begin as colleagues, soon become friends, and unfortunately develop into each other’s most hated enemy.  Both become fanatical about the other and soon go to any lengths possible – and I do mean any ­  to not only discredit each other’s work as magicians, but to hurt and humiliate the other in manners which could aptly be described as both imaginative and maddening.  Some men take revenge seriously, but Alfred and Robert take it to all new calculating and decrepit lengths.

The second arc of the story highlights Robert’s visit to Colorado Springs.  His reason for his trip there is to consult with Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie, in the film’s biggest casting coup), a scientist who is using the latest invention of electricity to create a mysterious new machine that Alfred hopes to appropriate for his newest show.  Why does Robert go to such lengths?  Well, he has witnessed Alfred’s incredible “Transporting Man” trick and was so blown away by it that he has to – come hell or high water – top it with an even greater feat of wizardry of his own.  Beyond this plot tangent the film focuses on to the fateful and tragic night when it looks like Alfred may – or may not – have a hand in the killing of Robert during one of his magic tricks that involves the strange new device created by Tesla.  The evidence is quite overwhelming for Alfred, who is promptly arrested, tried, and sentence to death via a Hangman’s noose.

The character dynamic of THE PRESTIGE is what makes the film a sight to behold.  The crutch of the Alfred/Robert relationship lies squarely on their willingness to discover how to show something shocking and awe inspiring to their audiences that they have never seen before.  This is the primary obsession that drives them both.  Their secondary obsession is with topping each other, followed by degrading each other in the process.  During the film it sure appears that Alfred is – indeed – the better and superior magician of the two.  His crème de le crème of all of his feats – THE TRANSPORTING MAN – sure is a showstopper.  In it Alfred goes through one doorway on stage, vanishes in thin air, and then magically reappears on the opposite side of the stage in seconds through another doorway.  Robert thinks it’s the greatest feat he has ever seen and he soon dedicates himself with stern conviction and determination to find out how he pulled it off. 

At first, Robert is a frustrated artist that suffers from magician’s block.  I mean, how on earth did Alfred perform this extraordinary feat?  Did he have a double that looked just like him?  He sure seems to think so, but his beautiful assistant (Scarlett Johansson) thinks otherwise.  She thinks he could not have had a double.  Why?  Because the man who emerges from the second doorway has the same physical scarring (in Alfred’s case, two amputated fingers) that Alfred has.  She thinks there is only one Alfred and not a double.  This, of course, only infuriates Robert more, so much so that he even goes to the lengths of having her infiltrate Alfred’s crew to discover the real secret behind the Transporting Man.  This, of course, leads him to Colorado Springs and his devising of a magic trick that seems to surpass even Alfred’s disappearing man illusion.  Soon, it is Alfred that craves to find out the secret of Robert's trick.  It is a seemingly never ending, cyclical cycle of comeuppance for the both of them, which can only appear to end in bloodshed.

THE PRESTIGE works so marvelously in the manner it handles its characters.  Strangely enough, the film neither has any noble protagonists or despicable antagonists.  Both Alfred and Robert are neither good nor bad men.  Robert is a sympathetic figure at first in the way he feels pain for his wife’s death and his desire to exact some revenge on Alfred.  Alfred, at least during the opening scenes of the film, is a solitary loner who only thinks of himself.  Yet, as the plot progressed, my emotional connection soon segued to him, who soon becomes the victim of Robert's vengeful tactics.  After all, it is Robert that sinks to the level of nearly copying Alfred’s magic trick and tries everything to discover all of its secrets.  Clearly, to a magician who strictly adheres to a code of ethics, this offends Alfred.  All in all, it is Robert’s actions that act as the catalyst for the duo’s never-ending battle of wits.  It is their willingness to find ways to humiliate the other that slowly begins to get the better of both of them.

On a character level, THE PRESTIGE is fairly flawless and limitlessly engaging.   The same can be said for its period detail, cinematography, and art direction, all which are wonderfully somber, dark, and rich in detail.  However, less kudos can be given to segments of the narrative flow.  At times, THE PRESTIGE is wickedly convoluted and dense.  Like in MEMENTO, Nolan plays around with planes of time and weaves and interweaves with different stories.  Oftentimes this is done pretty seamlessly, whereas other times it’s a bit too murky and confusing.  Also, the final “prestige” reveal during the film’s third and final act sort of lapses out of any plane of reality that the film has set up in the first place.  It’s not so much implausible as it feels like a cheat in a way, kind of like a real magician raising the curtain to reveal his secret that makes people roll their eyes with incredulity more than it inspires absolute wonder.

Yet, it’s the themes and interplay between all of the characters that I most admire about the film.  Is their a better young actor than Christian Bale?  His range is remarkable.  He has played everything from disheveled drug addicts, to axe wielding serial killers, to the DC Comics' Caped Crusader himself.  As always, he has a field day at the acting office playing the icy cold and malevolent Alfred.  Hugh Jackman, an actor who most people remember playing Wolverine in the X-MEN films, gives his most layered and textured performance of his career playing the somewhat demented and power hungry Robert.  The chemistry between the leads is equally solid.  Michael Caine is also superb as Cutter, a decent man who is caught between two madmen.  David Bowie is shockingly effective as the enigmatic scientist.  The only really weak link on the performance side of the film is Scarlett Johansson, who once again is forced to ostensibly sleepwalk through yet another embittered role of the woman caught between two jaded and misguided men.  She played this role – intensely – in LOST IN TRANSLATION and then played the same type of role in MATCH POINT and then again in THE BLACK DAHLIA.  She is adequate in the part, but Johansson is not given much more to do here than she has not already done better before.

Despite a few modest missteps, THE PRESTIGE is another powerfully assembled and tremendously mounted thriller from Christopher Nolan, who is rightfully gaining a solid reputation for mastering the genre.  The film is luxurious and extravagant to look at, its story methodically laid out and enthralling, and it has performances by its two leads that only help to embellish the film’s theme of twisted animosity and self-righteous obsession.  THE PRESTIGE is intricate, absorbing, complex, and an eerily atmospheric and opulent period mystery that does an exemplary job of leaving you guessing almost until the last moment.  Sure, the final minutes may have you shake your head, but it’s the build up to that where THE PRESTIGE reveals itself to be a class act all by itself.  All in all, the film has considerable magic behind it, not to mention a lot of flashy showmanship.


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