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Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 10.26.06


Craft of Deception

Christopher Nolan masters the art of illusion


THE PRESTIGE: Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Cinematography, Wally Pfister. Music, David Julyan. Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie and Andy Serkis. Touchstone/Warner Bros., 2006. PG-13. 128 minutes.

Christopher Nolan is a master of beginning at the end. In his breakthrough film, 2000's Memento, he not only began at the end but continued moving backwards through time. In The Prestige, written by Christopher and his brother Jonathan and based on a novel by Christopher Priest, the end is the beginning, but the story doesn't run in anything so simple as a straight line.

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

In Victorian London, two young stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), are learning the ways of their trade. Angier is dashing, romantic, spontaneous; Borden is quieter, more concerned with the secret truths of a magic show than with its presentation. A tragic accident causes the tension between them to grow into a rift, one that widens with the years. Though their lives diverge, both men are equally obsessed with each other's magical secrets. Neither can walk away from their escalating rivalry, though the stakes grow higher and higher.

But The Prestige starts with none of these things. It starts with Cutter (Michael Caine) Angier's "ingeneur," the designer of his tricks, as he explains to a young girl the parts of a magician's trick: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The film takes these parts as its structure, looping three time periods around each other. There are the early years, as Borden and Angier hone their shows, compete for audiences and fall in love; the middle years, when Angier goes to Colorado Springs to ask Nikola Tesla (a clipped and perfect David Bowie) for a wondrous machine; and the later years, when a mid-show death leads to Borden's trial for murder.

Rich with grand theaters, dark London streets and enticing magicians' workshops, The Prestige is a beautiful film, its every aspect polished to a warm glow. The performances are nearly spotless, especially those of Jackman, whose Angier grows increasingly unsympathetic, and Bale, whose Borden finds it nearly impossible to maintain both his work and his family. The score is so well-matched to the film that it rarely makes its presence known, heightening tension and sharpening thrills without ever becoming overwrought. One character does walk out of the film without a true sense of closure, but her departure is a lone strike against a complex, layered plot that unfolds piece by careful piece.

Like the contraption Cutter builds, allowing Angier to do a common trick in a new way, The Prestige is a piece of precision work, but one that can be dismantled with a single careless move. Don't let anyone spoil this film for you. Though The Prestige has strengths well beyond a single twist, to know its secrets at the start is to be directed to certain aspects of the film and distracted from others. As the story plays out, one trick turns on another; Borden puts one over on Angier, only to have it returned in a gracefully contrived bit of parallel misdirection. Journals, with their particular, self-made constructions of identity, play a meaningful part. And though the female characters, including Rebecca Hall as Borden's wife and Scarlett Johansson as a loyalty-shifting assistant, get relatively short shrift, their storylines illustrate the bitter sacrifices Borden and Angier make in single-minded pursuit of each other's secrets.

The Prestige requires — and rewards — patience. Slowly but fiercely, it draws the viewer into a haunting story about obsession, ambition and secrets deeper and more personal than those that are a magician's trade. As Cutter tells Angier, sometimes a magician has to get his hands dirty in order for an illusion to work. But sometimes he just has to find the secret the old-fashioned way: by watching closely.   


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