“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two aspiring illusionists working together in Victorian London, but when Angier’s wife is killed during an act, the two are torn apart. Hell-bent on outdoing each other, the pair, both aided and hampered by the beautiful Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), go to extraordinary lengths to prove they are the greater magician.
The Prestige formed part of a magical double bill in 2006 alongside The Illusionist, but largely thanks to its trio of Jackman, Bale and Johansson it pretty much eclipsed its illusionary brethren. It also had the advantage of having Christopher Nolan at the helm fresh from Batman Begins to lend a bit of narrative nouse that the director has become renowned for. Adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, The Prestige is an atmospheric period piece that effectively combines magic’s inherent mystery and intrigue with a plot that constantly keeps you second guessing right to the very end.
The narrative jumps around between different time periods of the magicians’ rivalry, although Nolan does well to ensure it never becomes too confusing. The carefully crafted mise-en-scene not only creates an intriguing world for the characters, but also elicits a certain dreamlike quality that is equal parts beautiful and sinister. Neither Algiers nor Borden are particularly likeable characters; both have somewhat dishonourable intentions and it’s hard to know who to naturally side with. This, combined with the cinematography and flitting narrative all adds to the feeling that nothing is quite as it seems and that you shouldn’t be so quick to take everything at face value.
The Prestige is a film that definitely warrants a second viewing, presuming you enjoyed it first time round of course. There are some superb instances of foreshadowing, with some being much more subtle than others. Again, this just adds to the film’s mystery and intrigue. And as with ‘real’ magic, these are the things the film does best. The plot itself has a few holes in it here and there, although nothing that will break the film, and the characters can be a little one-dimensional at times. Bale’s Borden is by far the pick of the bunch, whilst Jackman and Johansson don’t exactly give memorable performances. In fact, Jackman’s best moments are when he actually plays Gerald Root, an out of work actor used as Algier’s double in his act.
Although magic is undoubtedly the basis for the film, it also becomes somewhat of a MacGuffin. The real theme of the story is two men with an all-consuming obsession and a friendship not just turned sour, but deadly. The Prestige is an interesting example of art imitating art and one that challenges the audience to question everything they are seeing. With magic it’s the reveal that gets the big reactions, and The Prestige just about delivers on this front. It’s not going to have you open-mouthed in amazement but it will likely leave you with a sense of satisfaction, if indeed you had at all been fooled. But then again, as the quote at the top of this review states, you don’t really want to work it out anyway.
Words: Chris Thomson