October 26, 2006

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The Prestige (PG-13)
Batman and Wolverine throw abracadabras at each other in The Prestige, a Victorian-era tale of dueling magicians.

Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are just two magicians in training in London who make their pocket change by serving as professional “can I have a volunteer from the audience” guys for a famous, somewhat hackey magician. One of their jobs is to tie the ropes around the arms and legs of lovely assistant Julia (Piper Perabo), who is dunked in a sealed tank of water. One day Alfred messes up a knot (maybe) and Julia drowns before they can let her out. Sad for him but devastating to Rupert, who is Julia’s husband, now widower. Alfred goes on to build his own small show, which includes a trick where he “catches” a bullet. Rupert shows up one night and makes sure that an extra bullet is in the mix, magically creating a hole where the tops of two of Alfred’s fingers used to be.

This doesn’t keep Alfred down. He still does magic. He gets revenge on Rupert by destroying one of his shows. He still flirts his way into the heart of Sarah (Rebecca Bell), whom he marries and with whom he has a daughter. He draws the ire of Rupert, who thinks he should be the fellow with the family. Rupert has started doing a little magic show of his own, getting help from manager Cutter (Michael Caine) and lovely assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). When Alfred starts doing a trick called The Transported Man (he goes in one box and comes out another one across the stage a second later), Rupert is determined to find out how he does it. He fakes it first with a body double who appears after “the prestige” (the twist end of the trick) but is convinced that Alfred has a “real way” of doing it. He even sends Olivia to work for Alfred to suss out the truth. Olivia isn’t so keen on being traded away like a horse and betrays Rupert, turning her affections to Alfred. Not that Sarah is so keen on that.

Though Rupert briefly steals Alfred’s Transported-Man thunder, Alfred is eventually able to break Rupert’s leg and steal it back with his own Original Transported Man (made better with the help of Olivia).

Then Rupert steals Alfred’s diary and goes to America to look for the mystical box that he’s convinced does the Transported Man trick “for real.” Alfred tricks Rupert. Then Rupert tricks Alfred. Then, more trickery.

The movie plays with flashbacks, throwing the near-end toward the beginning and mixing in the beginning and the middle as the movie heads toward the end. All this temporal hopscotch is, naturally, a bit of misdirection — keep your eye on the unfolding plot and you’ll miss the sleight of hand that gives us a fantastic ending.

“Fantastic” in the sense of the ending being rooted in rather extreme fantasy. Keeping up the theme of look-over-here-while-we-hide-the-pigeon-over-there for its first two thirds, the movie begins to veer into the possibility of actual magic with the appearance of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), a Rupert/Alfred-like rival to Thomas Edison, the hint of whom appears here as well. The loveliness of The Illusionist (the other Victorian magic flick in theaters) is that in its new-technology-meets-old-world tale, we had the melancholy hint of magic just as expansions in the study of science in general and electricity specifically made it seem like there really were more powers in the world than previously suspected. We in the audience (like the investigator character played by Paul Giamatti) mused about the possibility of the fantastic but still we looked for the contraption, for the wires, for the birds up sleeves.

The Prestige plays up the magic of electricity even more (Tesla is called a wizard here and when you see the unnaturally well-lit town of Colorado Springs, you almost believe he is). These scenes have a sort of lovely mystery to them. It’s when we start to expect that the movie actually wants to show us something supernatural that the movie and its carefully build mood starts to seem more David Blaine and less Harry Houdini.

The Prestige is fun if flimsy. It offers a glimpse into a past when magic seemed magical, even for skeptics and fellow showmen. Movies (with their CGI explosions and ghosts and superhero-powers-bestowing abilities) have, I think, made magic and magicians seem more ordinary, more three-card-monte. When The Prestige turns from magic tricks to the possibility of actual magic, that movie ordinaryness takes over and the thrill of watching a good trick with a surprising prestige start to fade. B-

Rated PG-13 for violence (mostly in magic tricks gone bad) and disturbing images. Directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Christopher and John Nolan (based on a novel by Christopher Priest), The Prestige is distributed by Touchstone Pictures in wide release and is two hours and eight minutes long.

— Amy Diaz