The Magic, Man

Many effective writer/directors spend their allotted hour-plus or so setting up a story and then gradually filing it down, hoping to arrive at a concise, elegant, truthful expression of a particular emotion
“This would go so much quicker if I had my utility belt.” Christian Bale and Piper Perabo in The Prestige.
The Prestige
Dir. Christopher Nolan; writ. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Christopher Priest (novel); feat. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis (PG-13)
Many effective writer/directors spend their allotted hour-plus or so setting up a story and then gradually filing it down, hoping to arrive at a concise, elegant, truthful expression of a particular emotion. Others aim their talents squarely at putting across a certain message or thematic element in order to help ignite concerted thought along new and provocative avenues. Eminent mindfuck purveyor Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, seems instead to have his heart and career trajectory set on serving as the cinematic patron saint of audience members who find themselves perpetually and perplexedly tearing the hair from their skulls. Cases most directly and recently in point: Nolan’s cagey 2000 psycho-noir breakthrough Memento and his latest, The Prestige.

Drawn from the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige carries a rather effective hook: Dueling magicians with darkly entwined pasts vie with each other for superiority in Victorian-era London. (Built-in selling points: Friends-turned-rivals, yadda-yadda, nothing is what it seems, blabbity-blah, Scarlett Johansson in a corset.) One, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), is a natural showman; the other, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is less so, but is more of an intense purist about the craft, and perhaps a more talented magician. When tragedy splits the two colleagues, sending Angier to the depths of despair while Borden soars to the heights of renown with a new, bewilderingly spectacular trick, Angier becomes single-mindedly obsessed with discovering Borden’s methods, and a vicious rivalry begins. With an eye toward tiptoeing around the film’s twists and turns — and oh, but there are many — it nonetheless bears telling that these matters do not end peaceably, or as well as might be hoped; much breathtakingly Byzantine deception and treachery lies in the offing; and, again, the young Ms. Johansson appears in a severalty of corsets (in case that’s your thing).

The casting provides several points of interest, not least of all the peculiar case of accents, which (lightly) recalls the theme of illusion: The ever-fantastic Michael Caine and relative newcomer Rebecca Hall get to keep theirs intact; just about every other principal is playing, at least a bit. Aussie Jackman hits his plosives and fricatives to (over)do American (he enunciates like he’s narrating a software tutorial, but his performance holds up), Welshman Bale nudges up the Cockney a bit, Jersey girl Piper Perabo does a fair British, while the increasingly overexposed (in every way) Johansson struggles more with hers, David Bowie adopts a vague alteration to suggest (?) Serbian, and — in what is the undisputed best of the bunch — Andy “Gollum-Kong” Serkis offers a seemingly effortless, Hoskins-esque Stateside put-on. Performances, predictably, are solid across the board. (Also of some interest is a cameo by actor/magician/Magnolia narrator Ricky Jay.)

The same elliptical (and potentially maddening) fractured-time narrative found in Memento presents itself in The Prestige, and, as with the earlier film, there are moments in the latter where a glut of seemingly contradictory or peripheral information threatens to overwhelm even the assiduous and dutiful viewer. But Nolan has you well in hand. The film’s three acts inventively mirror the three acts of a classic magic trick (the last of which gives the film its name), and everything else is just as calculated. The medium of film, which deals heavily in illusion and making possible that which seems not, is much akin to a magic trick, an analogy that is in no way lost on the director. Nolan is a master showman; his final act, accordingly, is a doozie.


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