You may not know this about me but for a couple of years, I worked as a magician’s assistant, just as Alfred Borden AKA The Professor (Christan Bale) and Robert Angier AKA The Great Danton (Hugh Jackman) are to Ricky Jay at the beginning of the film. I never went out on my own as a performer and got into a rivalry with a fellow assistant-turned-front-man, but I did get a first-hand glimpse of the inner workings of this much peculiar profession.
As Sir Michael Caine‘s character explains during the opening sequence, the first of the picture’s numerous literal and figurative bits of sleight-of-hand, there are three acts to a magic trick: “The Pledge”, where you’re shown something seemingly ordinary, “The Turn”, where that ordinary something does something extraordinary, and finally “The Prestige”, where things twist further onto themselves and the extent of the illusion is fully revealed. The audience knows there’s a trick, but that’s not important; what matters is that they wonder, if only for a second – what if there isn’t one? It’s about making people believe the unbelievable. More so, and this is particularly true of Johnny Dee (the magician I worked with), the skillful trickery is only as powerful as the showmanship makes it. In a great magic trick, the set up is every bit, maybe even more enthralling than the payoff.
This is one of the central themes of “The Prestige”, how Borden might be the more highly skilled magician, but he lacks the stage presence and the understanding of the importance of theatricality of Angier. Still, the two are intrinsically linked, in no small part because of the tragic way their collaboration under Ricky Jay was terminated. From that point on, they’re both obsessed with not only one-upping one another but also finding ever more devious ways to inflict pain, humiliation and sorrow on the other. The saddest part is that their eye-for-an-eye antagonism springs from what is clearly an accident. But that doesn’t matter to them, right? Like in most wars, once they start escalating out of control, the question of who did what to whom first becomes desperately futile.
As dark as it gets, “The Prestige”, like Batman Begins before it, is also a wildly entertaining movie. If you thought Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne was slightly too internalized, you’ll be glad to know that he truly lets his kinks fly here as another tormented soul struggling with leading a life of lies and secrets. Next to him, Jackman is equally complex, ambiguous and fascinating, more than he’s ever been on screen before. The interaction between these two alone guarantees you bloody good times but, as in his Bat-flick, Christopher Nolan has assembled a stellar cast that enriches even the smallest part. Beside Caine and Jay, we get Piper Perabo, more charming than ever as Angier’s wife; Rebecca Hall, heartbreaking as Borden’s, who must deal with the conflicting attitudes of her alternately loving and careless husband; and Scarlett Johansson as the hot young thing who becomes involved with both men.
Last but certainly not least, David Bowie (with a little help from Andy Serkis as his manservant) nearly steals the film as Nikola Tesla, the mad genius whose inventions become integral to the magicians’ war. While watching “The Prestige”, I found Tesla to be a wonderful, larger than life creation, right from his iconic entrance amongst buzzing arcs of electricity, but once I got home and hit Wikipedia, I discovered to my own astonishment that he’s actually a real historical figure! The rivalry with Edison (which mirrors the one between Angier and Borden), the experimentations with electromagnetism in Colorado Springs and even his belief that science could potentially alter “time, space, gravity and matter” are documented! Naturally, the movie extrapolates on the facts to make them into something more fantastic, but it’s still amazing how much is based in truth.
Add Nolan’s typically brilliant storytelling and its nigh-Memento use of misdirection, the flawless cinematography and art direction, and plenty of fake mustaches (!) and you got yourself one of the most pleasurable films of the year.