The Prestige

2006, Movie, PG-13, 128 mins


Christopher Nolan's dark head-trip of a movie, adapted from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, revolves around two turn-of-the-century magicians trapped in a lifelong game of increasingly dangerous one-upmanship. Harry Cutter (Michael Caine) is an ingeneur — he devises and constructs the apparatuses behind elaborate stage illusions with which professional prestidigitators wow audiences wise to card tricks and simple sleights of hand. Every trick, he says, has three parts: The "pledge," an ordinary object or action; the "turn" that startles (and misdirects) the audience; and the "prestige," the final, unpredictable reveal that leaves them gasping. Cutter once mentored two aspiring magicians, impoverished cockney Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and an American who calls himself Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) — he assumed a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his socially prominent family with his tawdry theatrical endeavors. Borden is the better magician, Angier is showman who knows it's not enough to execute a complicated trick — you have to sell it. Once they were friends, but now Angier is dead, apparently murdered backstage by Borden during a mystifying illusion called "The Transported Man," which Borden devised and Angier parlayed into the triumphant climax of his sold-out London engagement. The tale of how matters came to this grim pass begins as it ends, on stage in the middle of a performance gone terribly wrong. Years earlier, lovely Julia (Piper Perabo), Cutter's assistant and Angier's wife, was performing a standard, high-end escape stunt: Bound with ropes, she's lowered into a tank of water and the top is locked; Borden and Angier play the "audience members" who carefully tie her with rigged knots. Julia has done it countless times, but this time she fails to slip her restraints and drowns. Angier is convinced Borden tied Julia with a more complex knot, and becomes consumed with thoughts of vengeance, especially after Borden marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and they have a child. Angier can't bear the though that his rival has the very thing — a loving family — of which he was cruelly robbed. Angier sneaks into one of Borden's performances and sabotages a classic trick, the bullet catch, costing Borden two fingers. By the time Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) enters the picture, the stakes have grown monstrously high and the line between magic and science are bizarrely blurred. Nolan, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, doles out details gradually, nimbly jumping back and forth in time and carefully filtering crucial incidents through the conflicting, one-sided perspectives of Borden and Angier. The film's prestige is a doozy, both dazzling and preposterous, but if you're watching closely — as Cutter advises in the film's first few minutes — it's flawlessly set up. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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