It has been nearly 15 years since Christopher Nolan blew our minds with his period psychological thriller “The Prestige”. For those who haven’t seen it, a quick glance at the synopsis won’t really do the film justice. Yes, it’s about two rival magicians duking it out in an escalating game of one-upmanship. But like every Nolan picture there is so much more simmering under the surface both intellectually and creatively. And as always Nolan’s storytelling is both challenging and absorbing.
Set in late Victorian London, Nolan starts his story (which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan) by hinting at its end – a magic trick gone bad, a murder trial, a man’s life hanging in the balance. But we quickly learn “The Prestige” is a movie full of illusions and in it Nolan steadily drops pieces of information for us to pickup and process. They’re all aimed at giving both context and clarity to those early teases.
The story of aspiring magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Borden) begins with the two men working as audience plants and stage hands for Milton the Magician (played by real-life illusionist Ricky Jay). Nolan favorite Michael Cane plays John Cutter, their mentor and the architect for Milton’s numerous stage devices. While doing a live water tank trick Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) drowns after Alfred tests a new knot when tying her up. Because of it, she’s unable to escape from the tank and Robert holds Alfred responsible.
The two become bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Even as their individual careers begin to take off, neither can shake their obsession with the other. The animosity really amps up once Alfred unveils his masterpiece, a trick he calls The Transported Man. Audiences are amazed and a jealous Robert is consumed with figuring out Alfred’s secret regardless of the cost. If it takes ruining his relationship with his new stage assistant Olivia (Scarlet Johansson), so be it. Even if it takes spending gobs of money going to America to meet eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla (a fantastic David Bowie).
What starts as a rivalry quickly festers into deceit and betrayal. Those caught in the middle of their feud are little more than collateral damage. Whether it’s Olivia or even worse Alfred’s wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Nolan digs deep into the ugliness of such obsession, yet both Alfred and Robert are still characters of complexity and nuance. And as the story uncoils in a wave of final act reveals, you realize that Nolan (as he always does) has more on his mind than it first seems.
The casting couldn’t be more in tune and it starts at the top with Jackman’s ambitious American and Bale’s cocky Cockney. Both actors really dig into the layers of their characters (and there are many of them), using their faults and virtues to paint two murky yet utterly fascinating portraits. Great performances from Johansson and Hall help color in the two men they’re caught between. And David Bowie is magnetic in a small but unforgettable role.
“The Prestige” came out right on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s first big budget blockbuster (2005’s “Batman Begins”). But it proved that he still knew how to tell a deep yet tightly focused story. And it still looks amazing, both the cinematography and production design. It could come out this weekend and easily pass for a current day movie, rivaling anything else out there. It’s yet another testament to Nolan’s greatness and diversity as a filmmaker and storyteller.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS