Obsession. It can drive men to the brink of insanity; taking them to places embedded deep in their psyches where they are capable of performing unspeakable acts to attain the object of their desire…or destroy the bane of their existence. In The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan’s latest dark masterwork, two magicians played by Christian Bale (Batman Begins) and Hugh Jackman (the X-Men series), are consumed by the same obsession: each other.
Bale, fresh off his stellar performance as the Dark Knight in 2005’s Batman Begins (also directed by Nolan), is the ambitious but penniless Alfred Borden. While Jackman trades in Wolverine’s claws and burly sideburns for a well-groomed coiff and tailored suits as the well-to-do London aristocrat Rupert Angier. Both men are fascinated with the world of stage magic, and are the willing students of Cutter, a grisled but likeable magician’s manager played with the usual cockney grace by Michael Caine.
Angier and Borden bide their time waiting for their chance to get their own stage show by serving as audience “plants” for an older magician’s act. Borden becomes the object of Angiers’ obsession when Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) drowns during an escape trick in a water tank. Since Borden was the one responsible for tying the knot Julia was supposed to be able to slip out of easily, Angiers vows to make Borden’s life a living hell.
Following Julia’s death, Borden leaves Angiers and Cutter and returns to the streets of London to develop his own stage routine. He meets and has a child with a woman named Sara (Rebecca Hall), and is soon scraping out a living as a magician in seedy underground clubs. Things seem be progressing nicely until Angiers shows up in disguise and sabotages Borden’s “Catch a bullet” trick, maiming his hand permanently.
From these two events a vindictive chain reaction of twists, turns, and one-upmanship between the two men wraps the audience up in spellbinding fashion. The two magicians wage war on one another, each one determined to discover the other’s secrets and ruin their respective careers, if not their lives. Angiers obsession to utterly ruin Borden seems to run just a bit deeper, however, and his relentless pursuit of vengeance eventually leads him halfway around the world to the surprising but brilliant casting of David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, the famed inventor and electrical engineer credited with inventing the radio. Both he and the special construct he is commissioned to build for Angiers serve as the deus ex machina of the film, the means by which the two magicians bloody and emotional battle comes to a shocking conclusion.
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With The Prestige, writer/director Christopher Nolan continues the roll he was on that began with the mind-blowing Memento, was briefly de-railed by the suitably named Insomnia, then picked back up again with Batman Begins, probably one of the five best comic book movies ever filmed. Working off a script co-written by his brother Jonathan (partly based on a novel by Christopher Priest), Nolan delivers an enthralling, suspenseful, mysterious glimpse into the world of stage magic; with all the deception and secrecy that goes along with it. The Prestige isn’t just a visual feast though, it boasts one of the most suspenseful mysteries in recent memory, slowly unravelling at a torturous but highly entertaining pace. Once you’ve adapted to the out-of-sequence, flashback-heavy narrative structure (a Nolan trademark) you’ll be riveted to the screen with a thousand-yard stare that will last until the credits begin to roll.
As for the actors, I have to say I was quite stunned by the chops displayed by Hugh Jackman in this film. The one-dimensional, toothless parody of Wolverine he phoned in during the cinematic catastrophe known as X3: The Last Stand is long forgotten 30 minutes into this performance. I didn’t think it was possible going in, but afterwards I thought he clearly stole the show and outshone his co-star. That certainly doesn’t imply that Christian Bale’s performance was dull or forgettable, quite the opposite in fact- he radiates intensity, but Jackman seemed to have the slight edge and a very devilish gleam in his eye as he chewed up scene after scene in the beautifully photographed turn-of-the-century London world crafted by Nolan.Scarlett Johannsen turns in her standard level of work as Angiers’ assistant, her radiant beauty fitting right into the time period, but masking yet another mediocre performance. Somewhere out there is a script that will allow her to flex her acting muscles, if she truly possesses any underneath that stunning façade. Michael Caine is, well…Michael Caine. There really isn’t anything more to say about the man. If he’s ever come across as anything but charming and brilliant in a movie, I certainly haven’t seen it. David Bowie as inventor Nikola Tesla is simply inspired casting by John Papsidera, who should have an Oscar nomination coming for this one. Kudos.
The Prestige is a beautiful, atmospheric, suspenseful ride. Give this movie the credit it deserves and shell out the money to see in a theater. You won’t be sorry.
“Are you watching closely?”