Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, THE PRESTIGE has a story with layers upon layers upon layers, told largely in flashback as we see – or do we? – what brought about the dire circumstances we see at the beginning. Borden and Angier start out as apprentices on the same magic act – Angier has a gift for presentation that Borden lacks, but Borden is better at the actual magic tricks. The two envy one another’s strong points just a bit. Then something awful happens and the rivalry begins in earnest, with each determined to show the other up and deliver a few bruises, both professional and literal, in the process. And then one of the tricks causes an obsession, which leads to a quest …
One doesn’t want to say too much about THE PRESTIGE’s story, because even when one of its big secrets is guessable long before the revelation, and one or two major climactic points can be gleaned earlier, it still packs a lot of wallops in its plot twists and reversals. Director Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote the script with brother Jonathan, became known on the strength of his memory-based MEMENTO, and it’s easy to see why THE PRESTIGE would appeal to him – the premise is full of the same kinds of inherent shocks, misleads and identity questions that propelled the earlier work.
THE PRESTIGE works on a lot of levels – it gets away with manipulating us mainly because the filmmakers and the actors are so good at it, letting our sympathies flow naturally in one direction before showing us something that makes us switch allegiances, and then causing us to double back. There is a problem with the aforementioned guessable twist, not because it steals any thunder when the characters learn of it, but because if we can figure it out, it’s hard to credit that the characters haven’t twigged to it earlier.
This, however, is pretty minor, because most of the movie blasts along, always surprising and (remarkably, given all the information) never confusing. When you start to ask questions, it always turns out that this is what you’re meant to do as clues crop up at every turn (including the opening shot). The intense, forceful Bale is thoroughly convincing as a master craftsman and there’s no problem at all believing Jackman as the kind of headliner who can fill theatres – or as the increasingly vexed soul Angier is offstage. Michael Caine as the early mentor to both Angier and Borden has a great mixture of canniness and moral backbone and Scarlett Johansson is beguiling as a magician’s assistant.
THE PRESTIGE brings up some real philosophical issues that actually stick with you after the movie is over. It’s a testament to the film that, even once we know how they did it, we’re still impressed and a little unsettled.