Act One: The Pledge
London. The early 1900s.
Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are each apprentices to another magician (Ricky Jay), serving as audience plants. During the act, they "volunteer" to come up on stage to check the knots on the magician's assistant, Sarah (Rebecca Hall) before she is lowered into a vat of water and escapes behind a drawn curtain. Borden checks her wrists, Angier her ankles before giving her shapely legs a discreet kiss. One night, Sarah is unable to get out and Cutter (Michael Caine), the Magician's engineer, breaks the glass to release her. But he is too late and she dies. Angier is understandably distraught, the Assistant is his wife and he believes Borden is responsible. The knots at her wrist allow the escape.
Thus begins a rivalry between the two magicians that will last for years, each of them trying to outdo the other, learn each other's secrets and to destroy the other, personally and professionally.
The rivalry comes to a head when Borden develops a trick called The Disappearing Man. Angier wants it and learns Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), a rival of Thomas Edison's, developed it for Borden. Throughout, they play games with each other and each other's lovers, trying to prove who the better magician, the better man is.
Act Two: The Turn
Written by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and directed by Christopher ("Memento", "Batman Begins", "Insomnia"), "The Prestige" presents a complicated, involving tale of two competing magicians who are seeking to become the best in their field. Their pursuit involves revenge, making them cold hearted in their quest. While the film is beautiful, technically outstanding and very interesting, this cold heartedness makes it way into the story, robbing the film of some emotion and some of its power.
Nolan is clearly interested in making the same types of films I am interested in watching because every one of his films has been very good or great. How many filmmakers are accomplished enough to create a film like "Memento" as their second film? Not many. Then to follow that with "Insomnia" and "Batman Begins", well, we have a talent on our hands. He seems to enjoy exploring the dark sides of his characters, exposing them to our gaze. This makes these characters intrinsically more interesting. To have a hero's dark side exposed gives us more to think about and to ponder, making them more fully developed.
In "The Prestige", Nolan takes two of our most interesting actors and casts them in a battle against one another. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are equally good. Bale plays the darker, more enigmatic role. Jackman plays the more distraught, grieving member of the duo.
After Angier loses his wife, he becomes obsessed with revenge. He wants to make sure he is the better magician than his rival, trying to constantly outdo Borden. But that isn't enough. He also seeks to destroy the other magician's life; straining his relationship with his wife, affecting the life of their daughter, destroying his on stage persona.
As Angier sets about this task, Jackman gives him subtlety, so that even when he is acting like a jerk, we still care for him. A large part of this is that we don't always know what is going on, and even when we do, the other member of the duo may be doing something equally as underhanded, balancing it out. So Jackman's Angier is not a bad guy, nor is he a Saint, but he is interesting.
Jackman's performance is very good. Even though he is on a quest for revenge, he reveals his obsession in subtle doses. At no point does he stop, stare off screen and break into a maniacal grin.
Bale's Borden has a couple of key similarities to his rival and one key difference. He is also obsessed with revenge; as soon as Angier extracts revenge, he changes Borden's life and he then sets a plan for revenge in motion. But Borden wants to be the best Magician. He doesn't care if he has an audience, or fame, he simply wants to amaze people, to be an artist. Angier wants to be a star and this motivates both of them because Angier realizes it will make his own quest more difficult, Borden is more committed to his craft.
But Borden's quest for revenge makes him cold and a little heartless as well. He falls in love and marries Julia (Piper Perabo). They have a child. His wife soon realizes that Borden only really loves her on certain days. She asks "Do you love me?" and he will respond "Yes, of course." Some days, she believes him. Others, she knows he isn't truthful. Late in the film, he announces "Not today". When he loves her, the character is full fledged and intensely interesting, but on those other days, he is too cold.
When both main characters have hearts of ice, the film has little emotional core, making it seem hollow. It's too bad both characters are unable to show their determination to extract revenge and their humanity at the same time. If this were the case, we would have a five star film on our hands. Without that emotional core, we just have a very good film.
Michael Caine plays Cutter, the engineer who creates new tricks. After the accident on stage, Angier approaches him and asks him to work for him. Throughout, he takes on the role of wise old sage, teaching the other two men about the life of a magician. The role is good, and a necessary part of the story, but Caine has certainly done more exciting work in the past.
Scarlett Johannson appears in her third of four films with a British accent. As Angier's assistant, she becomes a pawn in the game of revenge and does a good job. Again, nothing outstanding, but interesting. Why this rising young actress would take essentially a bit part is beyond me.
Act Three: The Prestige
But Nolan is a true artist with his writing. From the beginning, he weaves a complicated, intricate tale about the two magicians. We watch as Angier arrives in Colorado Springs to meet with the mysterious Tesla. Is that a limp? How did that happen? Then we watch as Borden faces trial for the murder of Angier. In a flash back, we watch as Angier performs the Disappearing Man trick and falls into a locked vat of water. Unable to escape, he dies. Then someone delivers Angier's journal to Borden in prison. As Borden reads his rival's journal, we learn of his story. Nolan then sets two stories in motion, crossing back and forth between different timelines, revealing keys to the mystery to us in small pieces.
Essentially, Nolan has created a jigsaw puzzle and all of the pieces fit. He and his co-writer, his brother, have worked out every detail, to make sure it fits. Key details may not be recognized at the time, but everything fits into place.
The framework of the story is also very interesting. Both men are reading through the journals of their rival. As they begin reading, we hear the other man narrate the story and we soon are watching a flashback. This method ensures that we only learn certain things when Nolan wants us to learn them. It is a neat trick. He has created a method of storytelling that essentially keeps us in the dark until he is ready to let us in on the secret. But it works.
This is a film with multiple revelations. Frankly, one of the revelations involving Bale's Borden was not as surprising or shocking as Nolan intended it to be. There are many scenes leading up to this moment and it was not hidden that well. That aside, the other revelations are well performed, proving Nolan may just be a magician himself.
"The Prestige" is one of the most interesting to watch films I have seen this year. But the key performances are lacking just that extra little oomph to push the film to the top. They are just too damn cold and the film lacks an emotional heart. Without a heart, it is difficult to become fully engrossed in Mr. Nolan's magic.