*** (out of four)
Early in “The Prestige,” a character named Cutter (Michael Cain), who designs tricks and equipment for magicians, explains the formula that every great magic trick must follow. There’s the “pledge,” in which the magician tells the audience exactly what he’s going to do. Then comes the “turn,” in which the magician pulls the feat off as expected. But finally, and most importantly, there is the “prestige.” This is when, even after achieving the impossible, the performer manages to surprise the audience once more.
“It’s not enough to simply make something disappear,” Cutter says. “You’ve got to bring it back.”
Clearly, the director, Christopher Nolan, to attempting to do the same thing with his movie and, for the most part, he succeeds. “The Prestige” is a fun mind-bender of a movie, but it also manages to be more than that. It has an emotional core that motivates the characters and keeps the audience interested.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians in Victorian-era England who meet and are mutually impressed with each other’s skills. They team up and are even more successful together because of their complimentary talents. Borden is a bit more skilled in the way of performing tricks while Angier is a born showman. All that changes, though, when their assistant dies during a failed water-submersion trick. Angier was married to her, which only complicates matters.
After that, the two of them become intense rivals and are constantly trying to figure out how to outperform one another. Borden becomes famous for his “Transported Man” act, in which he walks through a door on one side of the stage and instantly appears on the other side. Angier drives himself to the brink of madness trying to figure out what Borden’s secret is. He gets help from everyone from Cutter to the inventor Nikola Tesla in the search to best his rival. David Bowie plays the real-life man of science and is a kick to watch, partly because of well the ‘70s glam-rock star fits into the Victorian setting.
By the time Angier figures Borden out, the audience may realize that it doesn’t have Angier figured out. That’s when the flash-forwards to a murder trial we see throughout the movie start to make sense.
The life of magicians is certainly an unusual subject for a movie to tackle, so it is a bit odd that “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist” were released within several months of each other. Unfortunately, I missed that movie, but “The Prestige” is very enjoyable in the way it places the audience into the world of the turn-of-the-century magicians. The movie is entertaining and the actors bring a depth to their roles that keeps you interested. These characters are like those out of a Greek tragedy. They are both flawed and are not presented as either good or bad. They are instead forces of nature who want to destroy one another.
Nolan has been on a role since he surprised American audiences with 2001’s “Memento.” Since that time, he remade the Norwegian movie “Insomnia” into a bracingly intelligent thriller and breathed new life into the “Batman” franchise last summer with “Batman Begins,” also starring Bale. If “The Prestige” is any indication, he isn’t about to disappoint.
“The Prestige” is rated PG-13. Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.