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Not enough magic in The Prestige

By Lady Liberty
web posted October 23, 2006

The Prestige

** out of ****

The PrestigeIf there's anything more entertaining than a good magic show, I'm not sure what it might be. The idea of seeing some magic tricks was alone enough to get me to buy a ticket for The Prestige. The fact that it starred Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Sir Michael Caine were just added incentive as far as I was concerned.

The Prestige begins with the end: the horrific death of one Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a magician of some renown in turn-of-the-century London. A rival magician, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is arrested for Angier's murder. As Borden languishes in jail awaiting trial, the audience is taken back to a time when the two magicians were younger and friends, both struggling to make it big as performing magicians.

In those years past, Angier and Borden assisted another magician with his act. Prominent in the act was Angier's beautiful wife, Julia (Piper Parabo). Behind the scenes, another man is also crucial to the magic show. His name is Cutter (Sir Michael Caine), and he's the engineer that designs and creates the mechanical devices that permit some big tricks to be performed. From trapdoors to pulley systems, Cutter's expertise is integral. But even he can't prevent the tragedy that destroys Angier's life and tears his friendship with Borden apart.

Angier and Borden, once close, become rivals. What trick one does, the other must steal and do better; what better trick one performs, the other must find a way to sabotage. Cutter, who continues to work with Angier, warns him to let his obsession with Borden go, but Angier seems unable to do so. He adds still more to his own act with the hiring of a beautiful assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), but finds a way to use that decision, too, against Borden.

Meanwhile, Borden is busy working on daring tricks of his own even as he meets and marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Despite Sarah's calming influence and the happy birth of a daughter, Borden has no more inclination to stop harassing his rival than his rival does to leave him alone. Eventually, Borden thinks he might have a way to win the battle for supremacy between the two once and for all when Angier is betrayed.

But Angier is far from defeated. In a last ditch effort, he travels to Colorado Springs, Colorado to meet with the infamous Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) who he wishes to commission to design and build the greatest magic machine ever. As it turns out, Tesla is, in his own way, as much a victim of obsession as are the two magicians. He's caught up in his own consuming rivalry with fellow "wizard," Thomas Edison. But though he warns Angier his machine will cause him to regret its construction, he also sees the request as a challenge he may not be able to turn away despite his own misgivings.

When the brilliance of Cutter and Tesla come together, and the abilities of Angier and the even more capable Borden are pitted against each other, the only sure thing is that neither will quit until the other is utterly destroyed. And despite the knowledge of how everything will turn out in the end, the question remains as to who has really won anything, and just how much damage will be done to those surrounding the central personalities throughout the course of their no-holds-barred fight.

Hugh Jackman is perfectly fine as Angier (though some creative editing is used to make him seem better at slight-of-hand than he apparently is), but Christian Bale is mesmerizing as his nemesis. With a ready darkness lurking behind his confident facade, Bale offers up a performance that's believable in every respect. Despite his relegation to a supporting role (though a relatively considerable one), Michael Caine is also a very good and important part of the story. The real shock, at least for me, was seeing David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla. When Tesla was first introduced to the audience, I thought to myself that the actor looked something like David Bowie. But his accent, his ability, and frankly his craggy look led me to think he was a look alike. Instead, he's the real deal. Good for Mr. Bowie!

Director (and co-writer) Christopher Nolan is a favorite of mine. Having previously gained well justified notoriety as the director of the brilliant Memento, Nolan also effectively restored the Batman franchise with his dark and well crafted Batman Begins (starring, of course, the same well cast Christian Bale who was so good in this film). In The Prestige, there were unquestionably some of Nolan's trademark strokes of genius in some edits, a few camera angles, and certainly in the plot's twists and turns. But it's my opinion that those twists eventually got to be too much. While Memento was believable and I bought into Batman Begins, by the end of The Prestige I felt that there were so many twists that I lost my emotional investment in the characters in the face of a "Sheesh, now they've gone too far!" reaction.

The magical effects are, by the way, fascinating. The execution is also good enough that you'll think you really are back stage at a magic show. And the set decoration is superb up to and including what appears to be a relatively authentic depiction of the London streets of the time. The editing and cinematography offer up added visual fillips throughout to the extent that The Prestige is a feast for the eyes.

I enjoyed The Prestige to some extent, but was left oddly dissatisfied by the end. I believe that dissatisfaction was almost entirely due to the fact that the bizarre twists kept coming and coming and coming, all of which answered some questions but which left other even more obvious ones hanging. How did...? What happened to...? But who was...? There's no way...! I don't expect everything to be neatly tied up at the end of every movie, but when I'm frustrated by so many questions at the end of a film, it convinces me that something was lacking in the story itself. It also has a serious hampering effect on the general believability. That's too bad, because The Prestige had great promise and an execution that measured up — until, that is, the final scenes of the movie.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Prestige is rated PG-13 for "violence and disturbing images." That's true, though those scenes are well spaced. What's more important for your determination as to the film's suitability for your child is the complexities of the plot. Older children won't have a problem keeping characters straight, but they will be entirely confused by some of the circumstances that will arise. The Prestige requires close attention and a certain amount of relatively adult intelligence from its audience to be appreciated at all, and I don't believe that those under the age of 12 or so are capable of an adequate amount of either. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.




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