For the first few minutes of The Prestige, I wondered if the projectionist had loaded the trailer by mistake. After a brief, surreal opening shot (but file it away for later), we hear wise old stage-magician Cutter (Michael Caine) describing in voice-over the three “acts” of a magic trick.
First, he says, comes “The Pledge;” the performer shows the audience “something that appears ordinary, but of course — it probably isn’t.” Next, in “the Turn,” he must “make his ordinary something do something extraordinary” — fly away, turn into something else, disappear. But that’s not the end; the audience expects more. It’s not enough to make something disappear, “you have to bring it back.” That third step is called “the Prestige.”
All this is helpful information, but you wonder why it’s jammed into the first few minutes of the movie. Usually a film takes its time unfolding, and the gradual, teasing disclosure of an obscure title’s meaning is one of the pleasures of viewing. Here the data is thrown out with brisk efficiency, as if there’s going to be a pop quiz later.
This sort of mishandling runs through The Prestige, the latest from talented director Christopher Nolan, who showed his chops in Memento (2000) and Batman Begins (2005). A good magic trick is seductive, but a half hour into this film I still felt like I was watching a jumpy, agitated trailer. As we were marched smartly through the plot points, it seemed that the story was not so much developing as echoing, like a child doggedly repeating piano scales. These patterns may have created a pleasing symmetry in the novel by Christopher Priest (Nolan and his brother Jonathan made the adaptation), but on the screen it was just tiring.
The story isn’t a bad one, really. It concerns two young men in 1890’s London who are employed as Cutter’s stage assistants. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, star of Batman Begins) is a rough-hewn fellow with an innate gift for sleight-of-hand, though he’s not much of a hand at showmanship. His friend Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman, Wolverine of the X-Men films — and, as a young friend noted, how bad can a movie be that stars Batman and Wolverine?) is upper-crust, and conceals his identity to pursue a career in magic without tarnishing the family name. Angier has the stage presence that Borden lacks, but perhaps less of his natural talent.
Early in the film a tragedy occurs that plants everlasting enmity between the men. From there it gets rough fast. A scene soon follows in which one tries to kill the other, who escapes at the cost of two fingers — and that’s just the start. The stakes go very high, very quickly, but we haven’t yet had a chance to become emotionally engaged with these characters.
In a story like this, one that follows an interpersonal battle, the viewer needs some reason to feel some sympathy toward at least one of the lead characters. Perhaps it’s simple, and there’s a bad guy and a good guy. Or maybe — even more satisfyingly — both guys have just reason to be grieved, and both are flawed. But in The Prestige, although Angier’s quest is interesting, he’s not particularly likeable, and comes across as obsessive and somewhat brittle. Borden, his opposite number, is no better, and appears loutish and unfaithful (Rebecca Hall is wonderful as his long-suffering wife, Sarah). Scarlett Johansen is appealing, as always, but her role as stage assistant and mistress of each man in turn seems more like set-dressing and less like a plot necessity. At one point she simply vanishes from the story, and nobody makes her reappear.
A good part of the middle of the film takes place, surprisingly, in Colorado Springs, where one of the characters has gone to implore Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to build a device for him. (The real-life Tesla was an exceptionally creative inventor, who rivaled Thomas Edison in the development of electricity technology. As a rhyme then current had it, “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said ‘Let Tesla be!’ and all was light.”) In the course of this thread in the story, we cross the line from mere magic tricks to something Cutter terms “wizardry” — that is, when what happens is no longer simply an illusion. This is the point at which movie viewers are going to sort into two camps. Some will find this departure annoying and unbelievable, while others find it delightful. Put me in the latter camp. As the film drew to its conclusion I felt that it had at last found something daring and astonishing to present — even though it took a bumpy ride to get there.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.