Prestige, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Watching The Prestige is like observing a magic act where the magician's sleight-of-hand isn't deft enough. The trick almost works, but not quite… With its mechanical twists and turns and lack of heart, the movie often resembles Sleuth in superficial ways, except The Prestige resorts to cheating while Sleuth relied on cunning and guile. As is too often the case with narratives that try to be oblique to the end, the film's climax is strangely predictable. The Prestige goes to a great deal of trouble - including a triple time-line - to protect secrets that aren't all that surprising or hard to guess.

With a pedigree as splendid as the one behind The Prestige, the movie's inability to captivate consistently must be considered a disappointment. In the sweepstakes for best 2006 movie about conjurors performing circa 1900, The Illusionist is a few steps ahead of The Prestige. While one could argue that both films telegraph their third-act surprises, The Illusionist is less ponderous and more enjoyable. There are times when The Prestige bogs down and the needlessly convoluted way in which director Christopher Nolan elects to present the story doesn't help. Maybe he was looking for inspiration from his brilliant non-linear Memento.

The Prestige is too well made to be considered "bad," but it fails to deliver in ways that will earn it more shrugs than raves. There's nothing wrong on the acting front: headliners Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are at the tops of their games as rival magicians caught in the grip of an obsession to defeat one another. Michael Caine is delightful in a supporting role. Scarlett Johansson is wasted playing another love interest - a part with which she is gaining too much familiarity. Rebecca Hall plays a similar role but does it better. There's also a bit of stunt casting, with David Bowie playing real life scientist Nikola Tesla.

The Prestige unfolds during three time periods. In the earliest, we meet Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who, along with Rupert's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), are assistants to a magician. When a trick goes wrong because of something Alfred does and Julia dies, Rupert blames his former friend. After that incident, the two become bitter opponents, not only attempting to out-do each other on stage but instigating acts of physical vengeance against one another. In the second time line, Rupert is in Colorado Springs consulting with Nikola Tesla about a machine the scientist built that became an integral part of Alfred's show. Finally, the film skips ahead to the fateful night when Alfred is seen to be involved in Rupert's death. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

The Prestige is about obsession and the price paid to pursue it. Both Rupert and Alfred lose lovers because of it. Alfred pushes his wife (Rebecca Hall) away during a critical juncture in their marriage. Rupert falls in love with his assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), then uses her as a spy to uncover Alfred's greatest secret. She defects and tells Alfred the truth, but retains a degree of loyalty to Rupert. Both men tease each other with messages in diaries and both are connected to one of the greatest trick designers of the era, Cutter (Michael Caine).

The narrative eventually missteps by taking a wrong turn down a road that leads into science fiction. For a period piece that is so meticulously detailed, this is an odd way to go, and in a way it seems to be a betrayal of all that has gone before. Its integration is awkward and it alters the suspension of disbelief curve (not for the better). Even buying this premise is not guaranteed to open the gates to unfettered enjoyment. As is often true of movies about revenge and obsession, The Prestige is cold, and Nolan crafts a storyline that is more complicated than necessary. If his goal is to make things seem more profound or to obscure what's around the next curve in the plot, he is not entirely successful. As for the explanation at the end…yes, it's one of those instances in which a guy holding a gun provides a blow-by-blow account more for the benefit of the audience than the other character.

Those hoping to gain insight into how magicians work won't find a lot of help here. The details of a few tricks are revealed, but they're filled with cheats that can be found only in movies or literature. The title is explained as being one of three steps in a trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Oddly, it's that third act, the prestige, where this film is found lacking. There's plenty going on but never any real magic.

Prestige, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1