by Josh Boris
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
As the magician’s manager Cutter (Michael Caine) lays out in the opening of the film “The Prestige,” there are three steps to a successful magic trick: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. For example, the pledge is showing the dove, and the turn involves making the dove disappear. However, the truly great magic tricks rely on the prestige, the act of making the dove reappear.
On a similar note, an old theater and Hollywood maxim (often attributed to Chekhov) states that if you show a gun in the first act, it must go off by the last. In director Christopher Nolan’s newest offering, the prestige delivers its promise.
The proverbial gun involves two rival magicians in turn-of-the-century Britain, Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale). The film begins with Angier performing the finale of his magic show to a packed theater. A large contraption is unveiled, and as it begins to spurt blue lightning from a tower into a large container, Angier steps in and subsequently disappears. A simple trap door opens in the floor and Angier falls into a tank of water that immediately latches shut. As Angier thrashes wildly inside the locked container, Borden stands by and watches his opponent drown. Borden is arrested for the murder of Angier and sentenced to death.
The rest of the film chronicles the steps that led to the death of Angier. Through an ingenious, albeit sometimes confusing, portrayal of three time lines (the present where Borden is in jail, the middle through Angier’s journal read by Borden, and the early days from Angier reading Borden’s journal in the Angier journal flashback), we see the rise of each magician and their brewing deadly rivalry.
When Angier’s wife dies in a trick gone awry because of a mistake by Borden, he vows revenge. What ensues is a battle of one-up-manship as each man tries to discover the other’s secrets and destroy his reputation at the risk of sanity and personal relationships. This leads Angier on a wild quest to Colorado in search of Nikola Tesla (yes, the famous inventor, played by an almost unrecognizable David Bowie) to develop a teleportation machine to trump Borden’s enigmatic trick “The Transported Man.”
Like Nolan’s “Memento,” the audience is constantly left questioning what is real and what is merely a trick. The movie swings back and forth between banal, simplistic answers to its questions, and complex, fascinating ones. At one point Borden explains that saying the secret to a magic trick kills the wonder and betrays its status as the ordinary dressed up in deception, and the audience constantly wonders if the film is just the ordinary made up to look extraordinary, or whether something odd, something magical is truly happening. While some questions are answered, Nolan leaves some open-ended. Even after the film was over I had a long conversation over the several twist points and their ramifications.
As anyone who’s seen “Memento” and the bigger budget “Batman Begins” can attest, Nolan is excellent in creating mood. The sets are exquisitely designed and the piece perfectly captures the era and exudes a dark mentality, as technology begins to rise rapidly and the possibilities seem endless (whether for good or for evil). Jackman and Bale, two of the more underrated actors of our time, work off each other excellently as the two sides of the same coin, the aristocratic achiever and the street kid striving to amaze. Though the ending might be somewhat predictable, the piece is still enthralling and holds enough little surprises and intricacies that it’s still highly rewarding to watch it unfold.
After several disappointing weeks at the movies, it seems we’re finally returning to Oscar territory. When Nolan starts his magic trick he shows us the gun; by the end, the film goes out with a bang.