Movie Review: The Prestige
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"The Prestige" is a prestige job all the way, from the eerie rightness of its opening shot - that of dozens of top hats scattered incongruously in the woods - to the felicity of a cast headlined by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as dueling illusionists in turn-of-the-century London. I'm still trying to figure out why I didn't like it more.
Jackman plays Robert Angier, an American magician with panache coming out of his ears. Bale is Alfred Borden, a working-class Londoner lacking in polish but not in drive. They start out confidantes and friendly rivals, but soon the rivalry turns life-threatening. Below stage one evening Angier, after dropping on schedule into a hidden water tank during a disappearing trick, finds himself trapped in the tank while Borden looks on, remorselessly.
That is merely the beginning of the story, not the end. It moves back and forth between London and Colorado Springs, where in his mountaintop laboratory, the mysterious Mr. Tesla (David Bowie, more bored than mysterious) slaves away at his miracle invention, the early 20th-century version of the disappearing transporter machine from "Star Trek."
Tesla is the real-life figure among fictionals here; the real Nikola Tesla, Serbian born, discovered the rotating magnetic field and came up with the "Tesla Coil," used later in radio technology. Like a sci-fi "Ragtime," "The Prestige" makes a fairly intriguing story virtue out of its intermingling of real folks and made-up folks.
Scarlett Johansson, with a pretty fair London dialect, plays the magician's assistant who scuttles between the two archrivals. Michael Caine's along for the ride as Cutter, an old hand at the illusion game. The acting's very nice throughout, and as Sarah Borden, Alfred's wife, Rebecca Hall does a great deal with a smallish part.
Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, the screenplay for "The Prestige" by Jonathan Nolan and his brother, director Christopher Nolan, plays around with flashbacks and chronology. I found the results tangled and not entirely satisfying. It's straighter, certainly, than Christopher Nolan's "Memento," which I enjoyed far more. Yet "The Prestige" gets to be a bit of a grind after a while, despite all the finery and the elegantly detailed atmosphere. The whammies and counter-whammies traded by the illusionists recall the arch gamesmanship of "Sleuth," which was diverting once but is not a film (or a play) easily revisited.
Many, I suspect, will fall for "The Prestige" and its blend of one-upsmanship and science fiction. I prefer "The Illusionist," the movie that got here first. The modest but heartening success of that picture proves that people like magic, even on the screen, where magic can be faked so easily. Should "The Prestige" find a wide audience, and it may, the proof will be doubled.
Directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest; cinematography by Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; production design by Nathan Crowley; music by David Julyan; produced by Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder and Christopher Nolan. A Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 20. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence and disturbing images).
Robert Angier - Hugh Jackman
Alfred Borden - Christian Bale
Cutter - Michael Caine
Olivia Wenscombe - Scarlett Johansson
Nikola Tesla - David Bowie
Julia McCullough - Piper Perabo
Sarah - Rebecca Hall