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USA 2006
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
128 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

The Prestige

Synopsis: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two young would-be magicians. When a trick goes wrong and Robert's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), dies, the two friends become enemies and begin a campaign of magical sabotage and one-upmanship that descends into violence and murder.

Christopher Nolan has a talent for making films whose form mirror their content. Memento (2001) created the sense of a fractured, short-term memory being your only reality. Insomnia (2002) made you feel like you hadn't slept for days. Now he's back with The Prestige, a film based on a 400 page novel by Christopher Priest about magic that is all about misdirection and confounding your expectations.

The rivalry at the heart of the film is as much a professional one as a personal one. The two men's curiosity for each other's secrets leads them down dark alleys as they inflict physical and emotional wounds on each other. What could have been your standard revenge thriller, complete with escalating cycles of violence and loved ones falling as collateral damage, transforms itself into a journey into another world as more and more secrets of the hte world of magic are revealed and you're also drawn into the trickery of the film itself. You think you can see what's happening, but then a subterfuge is revealed and you discover that in fact it's nothing like what you thought. And you're not the only one. Cutter (Sir Michael Caine), Angier's ingéneur, the fabricator of his tricks and Angier's stage assistant, Olivia (a mis-cast Scarlett Johansson) are also left guessing whether Angier or Borden can be trusted.

The film's only disruption to this world of magic and double-cross occurs with the introduction of Nikola Tesla (a rewarding cameo from David Bowie). Famous as the real life inventor of alternating current, and as the man that Thomas Edison is alleged to have destroyed out of professional jealousy, he provides a suitable mirror to the battle between Angier and Borden. Borden is like Tesla, a genius devoted to his art. Angier more an Edison, hard-working, not quite as inspired but far more able to sell his tricks to the populace. Nevertheless Tesla's presence takes the film into a science-fictional realm that seems at odds with the film's main agenda.

Observant viewers will guess the trick long before its revealed, but most will be content to be taken along for the ride. Like Memento before it, the form is far more fascinating than the substance. There's a lot of fun to be had, but once the trick is revealed, there's not a lot left to learn. Indeed I'm not so sure that the film's prestige, the third act, actually holds together and is not rather a sleight of hand achieved by the optical illusions of cinema.

FYI: Coincidentally, The Illusionist, another period film about magic, was released the same year. 




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