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The Prestige

Cinematic Sleight of Hand Well Worth Seeing

Directed by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) and co-scripted with his brother Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige is a period fantasy thriller/drama centered on an increasingly obsessive, bitter rivalry between magicians in late 19th-century London. Based on Christopher Priest's 1995 World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Prestige is as much of a personal project as can be made within the Hollywood studio system. Nolan hoped to make The Prestige before Batman Begins, but time ran short and he didn't feel the screenplay was ready. Moviegoers will be glad Nolan decided to wait, as the screenplay balances a complex temporal structure with an equally complex, but no less absorbing, story.

The Prestige follows Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), wannabe magicians and friendly rivals learning their craft under Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), a self-styled “illusion engineer” who creates magic tricks for Milton (Ricky Jay). As part of the act, Angier and Borden masquerade as paying members of the audience, “volunteering” as necessary to add verisimilitude to Milton’s magic act. They assist Milton’s assistant, Julia (Piper Perabo), into a variation of the “Chinese water-torture” trick. At first, the act goes as planned, but a tragic accident (or a negligent act) permanently ends Angier and Borden’s friendship, leading to growing enmity between the two men that begins in competition and gamesmanship, but soon devolves into obsession and violence.

Borden, a talented magician but no showman, struggles to make a name for himself as the “Professor.” Penniless, Borden takes solace in his relationship with Sarah (Rebecca Hall), whom he meets at a magic show, courts and later marries. Angier employs Cutter as his illusion engineer. A natural performer, Angier’s popularity grows, but it’s Borden new act, “The Transported Man”, that finally transforms Borden into a popular magician. In “The Transported Man” Borden instantaneously teleports himself from one position on the stage to another. Angier rejects Cutter’s simple, elegant solution, but his envy gets the better of him. He steals Borden’s act and uses a double, an out-of-work, alcoholic actor, to duplicate Borden’s act.

Despite financial and critical success, Angier sends his assistant/lover, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), to work for Borden, instructing her to steal Borden’s notebook. Unfortunately for Angier, Borden’s notebook is written in code and without the key; Borden’s secrets remain undiscovered. The notebook offers enough tantalizing clues, however, to send Angier to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to seek out a visionary scientist, Nikola Tesla, who may just have the answers Angier is looking for. Angier’s return to London with the new machine returns him to prominence, but Angier has set a different plan in motion. To succeed, he needs to draw Borden one last time to see him perform publicly.

Thematically, The Prestige follows a straightforward template: tragedy leads to revenge; revenge leads to obsession, and obsession leads inevitably to tragedy. The Prestige also touches on doppelgangers, twins, and the question of identity (self-invented and otherwise), but these ideas aren’t explored in any depth, but they’re key to the major and minor revelations that make The Prestige as engrossing and yes, as affecting, as it is. Everyone, it seems, has a double, but in this world, doubles are (mostly) antagonists, mirror images of each other that subconsciously understand that only one of them can survive. Only two characters, Cutter and Borden’s daughter, don’t have doubles or antagonists, but each character is forced to choose between Borden and Angier several times.

Structurally, the Nolan Brothers eliminated the novel's present-day framing and secondary characters, focusing instead on Borden and Angier and their ongoing conflict across three timelines, one set in the present-tense (but still in the 19th century), and two others from Borden and Angier's perspectives, as detailed through their respective diaries. The present-tense scene that opens The Prestige finds one character in mortal jeopardy, then goes back in time to follow Borden and Angier's early friendship, the turn into tragedy, and the growing enmity between the two men. And yes, a film centered on magicians also includes a fair share of misdirection, all of it, of course intentional.

In less assured directorial hands, a film constructed around intricate, interweaving storylines set in three different time periods would probably confuse most moviegoers, but that’s definitely not the case with The Prestige. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay is a model of economy, offering information only as needed; repeating lines of dialogue across different moments in time, each time reflecting new, sometimes contradictory meanings that only become clear late in the film; and balancing tension, suspense, and surprise. It’s not, as evidenced by the several years the Nolan brothers took to adapt Priest’s novel, pruning away almost everything except the central conflict between Borden and Angier. Not surprisingly, Priest read and approved the Nolans’ script before they began filming.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars