The Prestige Review
By Shawn McKenzie 10/23/2006
In the late 19th century in London, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two stage magicians who work as assistants for aging magician Milton (real-life magician Ricky Jay.) They act as planted audience spectators when Milton calls for volunteers to inspect the trick’s devices. In the beginning of the movie, Borden is on trial for the murder of Angier, who he found drowned in a water tank under the stage during one of Angier’s shows. It then jumps to one of Milton’s shows. He is performing his signature Water Escape trick, which involves having his lovely assistant Julia (Piper Perabo)…who happens to be Angier’s wife…tie up her arms and lower her into a water tank. Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), who also acts as a mentor for both magicians, devised the trick. He explains that there are three parts of a magic trick: The Pledge, where a magician shows his audience something ordinary, when it probably isn’t; The Turn, where the ordinary object does something extraordinary; and The Prestige, where the astonishment takes place as the audience cannot unravel a magician’s secrets. With Julia’s permission, Borden introduces a new knot to tie up Julia that he hopes will be not be so loose that it will make her slip out of it and injure herself. Unfortunately, it is too tight and she can’t get out of it. She drowns before they get her out of the tank, and Angier blames Borden for her death. The two set off on their own separate ventures, and they try to one-up one another…including some dangerous sabotage and trick thievery. They both soon have new women in their lives. Cutter, who is now essentially mentoring only Angier, finds a new lovely assistant in Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) for Angier, who eventually becomes Angier’s lover. Borden courts and marries a young lady named Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and they have a daughter named Jess (Samantha Mahurin; Olivia and Zoë Merg as a toddler) together. She feels like Borden is two different people at different times though; sometimes he loves her, and sometimes he doesn’t. The two magicians have two different styles. Borden is the more skilled magician, but he lacks the skills to sell the tricks. Angier’s tricks aren’t as impressive, but he knows how to sell them. Angier interferes with Borden’s Bullet Catch trick by replacing the blanks with live rounds, causing Borden to lose two fingers. Borden retaliates by messing with Angier’s Disappearing Dove trick, causing Angier to lose his reputation as a skilled magician. Borden’s latest trick is called “The Transported Man,” in which he bounces a rubber ball, quickly goes into one box, and reappears out of another box in time to catch the ball. Cutter thinks that Borden is just using a body double, so Angier hires a drunken actor (also Jackman) to play the double. He titles his trick “The New Transported Man” and dubs himself The Great Danton, but he doesn’t like having to hide behind the stage while the double gets all of the applause. He sends Olivia over to spy on Borden and steal Borden’s journal, but she double-crosses Angier and becomes Borden’s lover instead. Borden disrupts Angier’s latest performance (since he now knows Angier’s secrets), and Angier retaliates by traveling to Colorado Springs to meet scientific inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis), who has been conducting experiments with electricity (he has wired the whole town.) Angier wants Tesla to build him the same trick that he built for Borden…but it might cost Angier his soul. Angier doesn’t care though…because all of his rage is concentrated on getting back on the man he believes deprived him of any and all happiness.
In my review of last year’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I mentioned that Doug Liman has become one of my favorite filmmakers, behind the likes of Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, David Fincher, and Steven Spielberg. With The Prestige, Christopher Nolan is added to that list (someday I will make a definitive top 10 list to add to my site.)
The reason why he is added to this list is that all of his movies all rate either a 4 ½ or a 5-star rating for me. His first movie, 2001’s Memento (his actual first movie, 1999’s Following, is a 69-minute movie that is hard to find), was my favorite movie of that year. His second movie, 2002’s Insomnia, was a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name that was one of three excellent movies made in 2002 starring Robin Williams (the other two being Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo.) His third movie was last year’s Batman Begins (starring Bale and Caine)…the best Batman movie since Burton’s first movie in 1989.
Nolan wrote the screenplay for The Prestige, his fourth movie, with his younger brother Jonathan (who also co-wrote Memento with him; they are also co-writing The Dark Knight, the follow-up to Batman Begins, which is projected to be released in June of 2008), and it was based on the 1995 steampunk novel of the same name by Christopher Priest. Like Memento, it shares that same kind of nonlinear timeline style of filmmaking. When you watch it, you might get confused at first…but in the end, it will all make sense. It’s a thrilling movie that will make you want to talk about it with your friends, and it might inspire you to check it out for a second time…kind of how Memento inspired me originally.
You gotta love seeing Batman and Wolverine in the same movie (coincidentally, the two characters are combined in a Amalgam Comics series called Dark Claw.) Bale and Jackman played their parts well…with Bale being very mysterious and Jackman being the consummate showman. The same can’t be said for the two lead actresses. Johansson and Hall did a decent job, but they were essentially window-dressing (even though their characters were integral to the plot.) Hall is a British actress who hasn’t had a breakout role yet. I hope that this one will be it, but honestly…I kept forgetting that she was in the movie. This is the fourth movie in 2006 for Johansson (the other three being A Good Woman, Scoop, and The Black Dahlia), but it is the movie that displays the least amount of her acting abilities, since she isn’t in it as much as the men (actually, I don’t know much about A Good Woman, since I’ve never seen it.) The only other actor of significance, rock legend Bowie, is a creepy dude that is great in the Tesla role (Serkis is Mr. Assistant Creepy…and he isn’t even lusting after a hobbit’s ring.) Even though I recognized him right away, my fellow critics at the screening didn’t even realize that it was the former Ziggy Stardust playing Tesla (I had to help them out with the fact.)
The Prestige is the third of three movies portraying a magician. Scoop was the Woody Allen movie that starred Johansson and Jackman, but it took place in the present. The Illusionist starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and Paul Giamatti, and it was also about a 19th century magician in Europe…but that movie was more of a romantic mystery. This movie is more of a fantasy thriller…and personally, I thought that it was better than The Illusionist. Either way, I hope that it conjures up some Oscar nominations. Nolan performed his magic on me though.
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