308 – The Prestige

The prestige, we’re told, is the third and final part of a magic act, the one in which the twists and turns occur, the denouement of the act. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? Apparently magicians analyze and study their craft endlessly, trying to improve, compete, excel, and dominate. The Prestige is about two lifelong competing magicians in 1900s London who are constantly trying to discover each other’s secrets. Eventually, as they top each other, there’s death, perhaps murder, placing everyone they know in mortal danger.

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is the showman, the magician with a flair for the dramatic. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is the moody technician with the creativity and intelligence to pull off the most remarkable stunts. They would seem to be fine complements for each other, but each is so set on beating the other that all pretense of camaraderie is abandoned.

What follows, of course, is a couple hours of twists and turns, with so and so turning out to not be what he or she was purported to be. One of Angier’s tricks goes horribly awry, and Borden is blamed for the result and is jailed. Is he guilty? How did he accomplish it?

Linking the two masters is the aged Cutter (Michael Caine), who’s been training them both since they were just starting out. A veteran of the gritty, no-holds-barred magic world, Cutter Knows Things. With a glint in his eye and a crusty grin, he reminded me more of Long John Silver, except without the eye path or the walking stick. Nothing like a crusty ol’ sage to keep everyone in check, right?

The heart of the animosity between Angier and Borden is that it’s thought that Borden somehow was responsible for the death of Angier’s wife during their act. Then Borden goes on to fame and fortune while Angier has nothing. Even Borden’s tricks kick the ass of Angier’s tricks, so much so that the latter journeys to, of all places, Boulder, Colorado in the United States to seek out Nicholas Tesla (well played by David Bowie), who’d built a funky device for Borden to use in his own act. All that’s missing is Angier shouting, “Vengeance will be mine!”

Enter Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), a trollop/assistant who joins Angier’s act. They fall in love, surprisingly. (That sentence brought to you by the word “sarcasm.”) Meanwhile, Borden falls in love with HIS assistant and knocks her up. So it’s sort of like real life.

Perhaps where the movie really lost me is in its science – one must suspend quite a bit of disbelief in order for key parts of the film to be acceptable. That’s one of the risks of a story about magic; modern audiences know a lot more about science than did those at the turn of the last century, so there’d be much more skepticism. If Angier’s trick were shown today, people would have myriad guesses as to what really happened, whereas in the 1900s it was all magic and wonder and crap like that. Still and all, the way in which Angier accomplishes his trick seems like a shaggy dog – it’s in the story merely to move the plot along.

I like movies with twists and turns, but when there are so many of them I no longer know what’s right and what’s wrong, I kind of lost interest in the movie. I hate not knowing which way is up, because when the credibility of each character – and, by extension, their own reality – is called into question, then the viewer has nothing to go by, and truly Anything can happen. Which makes me wonder what the point really is.

On the plus side, you have the subtext of Batman (Bale) versus Wolverine (Jackman). Even Alfred from Batman is there (Caine). And both actors are pretty good, but the movie plods along in places. I’ve never really liked Bale, though, who has a giant head.

See The Illusionist instead, a movie covering some of the same ground but more effectively and believably, with scarce, credible turns.

**1/2

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