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Victorian Chills and Thrills

In turn-of-the-century London, two apprentice magicians, Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) become bitter rivals as their skill and notoriety make them both famous. A vengeful game of one-upmanship threatens their families, their careers and even their lives.

Christopher Nolan is rapidly establishing a reputation for dark, edgy and thought-provoking thrillers defined by complex narrative, ambiguous characters and startlingly original concepts. Nolan’s previous offerings include Memento (a film in which the scenes proceed in backwards order) and Batman Begins. Whether The Prestige is his best work to date is not for us to say, but it is certainly a top-notch effort. The film is somewhat difficult to write about because a great deal of its appeal is reliant on the various unexpected twists and turns which carry the story forward. It is the sort of film that will have you thinking back afterwards, remembering clues that you didn’t pick up on when they were dropped, checking to make sure the director played fair.

Nolan has assembled a formidable group of actors to portray an equally formidable group of characters. Bale and Jackman flawlessly change places as villain and hero and back again. Caine is solid, as always. Johansson’s star continues to rise, and Andy Serkis is well on his way to finding a place in movies beyond the voice-over work that made him famous. David Bowie surprises as the enigmatic and reclusive inventor, Nikolai Tesla, and the viewer is equally surprised to find historical details seamlessly interwoven with fictional material.

The Prestige is more than just good entertainment, though. It also explores many evocative themes. It slyly suggests that a successful magic act must leave room for healthy skepticism in its audience. If people believe they have seen real magic, they will be frightened, and the point is to entertain. Furthermore, we are shown that the ultimately shallow illusions of stage magic are nothing next to the awesome power of science and nature. Magicians are all well and good, but scientists are the true wizards of our world, and are held in a certain degree of awe. But men of science are still only human. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison (two of the greatest inventors of their time or any other) forms a shadowy background parallel to the rivalry between Borden and Angier.

Deception is another potent theme developed in the film. The very nature of a magic act requires complete secrecy. While the audience may not believe that the magician actually has supernatural powers, if they are not mystified by what they see, they will not be interested. But off-stage, the magicians also have a personal life; one where they form connections, start families, make friends. Lies and secrets are inherently destructive to such relationships, and this creates a great deal of tension. Nothing good can come of it. The audience experiences this deception first-hand with the characters as the truth is slowly revealed.

The filmmakers keep the audience guessing with a unique narrative structure (often employed by novelists during the period in which the movie is set). Borden and Angier learn a great deal from stolen notebooks and journals, and the stories-within-stories of the narrative match the wheels-within-wheels of the plot.

Nolan also has an excellent handle on the historical period that goes beyond mere historical facts. He has, in many ways, captured the spirit and the flavor of the time. In addition to the use of Victorian literary devices in the narrative structure, there is a strong feeling of innovation and progress infusing everything. The Prestige makes things that are a jejune part of our everyday lives now (things like electricity) seem new and exciting and perhaps a little scary. Finally, the way the story’s mysteries unfold, the interactions and personalities of the characters and the general darkness of the plot and its setting bring to mind vague images of sensational pulp magazine serials from the turn-of-the-century: foreboding, suspenseful and illustrated with a few carefully chosen black-and-white ink drawings.

The Prestige, like the magic acts it is all about, is an elaborate, carefully-staged illusion powered by a great deal of high-quality talent and a flair for showmanship. The entire structure is as fascinating as it is delicate, and (again, like a magic act) the measure of its success will likely rest on the audience’s capacity for wonder.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy
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~ by Jared on November 10, 2006.

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