Friday, November 03, 2006

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)


Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige"--an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Priest--has a lovely premise at the heart of it all; not so much the notion of two professionals locked in a life-and-death rivalry (that's been done to death several times over), but the secrets that lie at the heart of their respective trademark acts: Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) with his "The Transported Man," and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) with his "The New Transported Man." Like all of the best magic, the respective secrets are simple, and it's actually possible to guess them beforehand (I knew the trick to Angier's act the moment he spotted a pile of hats; I realized Borden's when I saw one of the minor characters onscreen for the nth time (and in fact someone blurts out Borden's secret--which is promptly dismissed as unworkable)). The real trick and true secret of a great magic act is how the trick is presented, in such a way that you know, and are enchanted anyway.

The rest of the film isn't so bad. Borden and Angier are co-workers, employed by a competent if old-fashioned magician named Milton (Ricky Jay); when someone dies as a result of a possible slip-up in preparation, a rivalry sprouts between the two, in all aspects of life: career, family, even the love of a woman (Olivia Wenscombe, played by Scarlet Johanssen as yet another object of desire (she's so many she could open her own wax museum)). They show up in each other's acts, sometimes prying into inner workings and snooping around for secrets, sometimes assuming a disguise and sabotaging the act while in progress. This part of the film is given the majority of screen time, but in terms of what seems to interest Nolan they're really given very little weight; at one point a woman hangs herself and the husband concerned can barely bother to work up the energy to regret what happened (he seems more bothered by the obligation to be bothered). You tend to suspect that the wives, lovers, children and various career highs and lows are really a piece of misdirection--Nolan and Priest pointing our attentions elsewhere, until they're ready to present the story's true secrets.

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