(PG13) Dir Christopher Nolan US 2006.
‘Are you watching closely?’ Michael Caine asks in the opening scene of this film, before explaining that every classic magic trick has three acts. First is ‘the pledge’, where the magician shows you something ordinary. Then comes ‘the turn’ when he’ll make the ordinary do something extraordinary but that’s not enough, you need part three – ‘the prestige’. This is the hardest part, the finale when you ‘see something shocking you’ve never seen before’.
Caine’s character is speaking as an ingénieur, a designer of elaborate stage illusions, but he could have been talking about this film. Watch closely, because you really haven’t seen this one before.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are jobbing magicians in 19th century London, who become sworn enemies after Angier’s wife dies in a trick as a result of Borden’s mistake. They go their separate ways, with Angier becoming increasingly bitter and resentful while Borden flourishes, with a family of his own. When Borden performs a spectacular trick called ‘The Transported Man’, Angier is consumed with admiration, twisted with envy and along with the services of his ingénieur, Cutter (Caine), they try to replicate it, leading to both performers engaging in an escalating and deadly rivalry.
Based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, the script was adapted by director Christopher Nolan and, like his previous films Mementoand Insomnia, it deals with perception and identity, with deft switches in points of view and flashbacks aplenty supplementing the intrigue. To say much more of the plot would distract from the cinematic journey that you have to travel yourself, but it’s a film brilliantly without definable heroes – neither Borden nor Angier can be reduced to good guy/bad guy clichés, they’re driven men with powerful obsessions that threaten to entirely overwhelm them.
Turns from Scarlett Johansson as the spurned assistant Olivia and a rather jowly David Bowie as real-life inventor Nikola Tesla (locked in his own duel with rival Thomas Edison) bolster the quality of the cast, but it’s Jackman and, especially, Bale who really shine.
Throughout the film we’re repeatedly told about the magician’s art, methods, misdirection and the grisly secrets of his trade – but the terrific direction by Christopher Nolan deploys dazzling sleights of hand and cunning trompe d’oeils that elevate proceedings into the realms of the truly mesmerising. Magic is hard to find in cinemas these days but he conjures up something really quite ingenious and in (yet another) year filled with sequels and remakes, this film is far more than typical Hollywood smoke and mirrors.
For Time Out, January 2007
For original PDF, click here – The Prestige