The Prestige tells the twisty tale of two magicians in turn-of-the-century London (played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) who begin a deadly rivalry of on- and off-stage one-upmanship. Michael Caine plays the craggy builder of magical contraptions who stewards them both at times. Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson play the women who love them. The movie also features a rather wonderful digression into the life of Nicola Tesla (David Bowie’s best cameo since he did Warhol in Basquiat), the electricity pioneer who bequeathed us alternating current and who claimed to have invented a device so powerful that humanity wasn’t prepared to fathom it. As the magicians’ rivalry grows, so too grows the danger to the magicians and those they love. Even as the clever plot reveals the secrets of the staged illusion, it stages its own illusions with the audience’s expectations.
As Michael Caine’s character explains at the very beginning, a magic trick consists of three parts: The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige. Ironically it is during The Prestige of The Prestige where the cracks begin to show. I’ll discuss these faults below, but to do so will require discussing the twists of the film which will likely deprive most viewers of a great deal of pleasure. Don’t misunderstand me: The Prestige is an excellent film and its myriad turns are worth experiencing cold. For that reason, I urge you to see it now before it is spoiled by an inevitable wisecracking co-worker.
Ye been warned…
Okay, I doubt I am the only viewer who guessed early on that Christian Bale’s character had an identical twin who disguised himself as Sergeant Pepper. This is set up to be the end’s big reveal, and might still play even if predicted because it remains a reveal to Hugh Jackman’s character. Still, it feels like there should be one more little twist. I wanted so badly for the eyes of that last drowned clone of Angier to open but I realize that wasn’t what the Nolan brothers wanted.
They want us to fall on the side of Christian Bale’s (dual) character — thus to be happy that one half of him survives. It is still a bitter, bitter ending. The half that survives is the one that loved Piper Perabo’s character and seems destined to be as lonely and demented as Hugh Jackman’s Angier. Angier was a man who had every reason to seek revenge, and who was at least admirable for his willingness to go to the ends of the earth to get a magic trick.
And what of Scarlett Johansson’s character and the fate of The Machine? Two conspicuous loose strings in an otherwise very tightly wound plot. (The movie also promises a live burial trick that it doesn’t deliver, but this is a minor quibble since it was probably meant to be a wink at a future popular escape.)
From the moment Rebecca Hall’s character took her own life– a clearer indication of why, perhaps her discovery that she was married to two men, would’ve helped– I started to feel the movie gasping for air.
The incorporation of the legends that have grown up around Tesla was an inspired story element, although I’m not sure why Tesla wouldn’t just disavow having built any magic cabinet to Angier right away, or conversely, taken his money immediately without question.
In any case, The Prestige is so much fun to watch that I’m willing to overlook these flaws, which all arise late in a very entertaining game. There is a Mametesque level of story craft on display in the way the scenes unfold and how every piece of dialogue contributes to both building character and laying the groundwork for some future twist. The other tech credits are all suberb (although I was, during some late scenes, distracted by the score, that’s perhaps more a reflection of the cracks in the plot). My crystal ball has a hazy vision of Art Direction and Cinematography nominations accompanying Best
Original Screenplay. But perhaps that’s putting The Turn before The Prestige. It is still very early in the Award hunt.
UPDATE: It seems the story isn’t original, having been based on Christopher Priest’s novel, The Prestige.