I have absolutely no idea why - practically for decades - we don't see anything particularly Houdini-esque in the cinema and then, within a couple of months of each other, we get not one but two 19th Century magician movies. It happened with meteors hitting the earth (Armageddon, Deep Impact), with Wyatt Earp westerns (Tombstone, Wyatt Earp), and more recently with penguins in the Antarctic (Happy Feet, March of the Penguins). One of the two tends to suffer as a result, and that is still the case with regards to these two Houdini-wannabes, The Prestige and The Illusionist, but it is a rare case when they both turn out to be superior, quality productions. In fact, I would go so far as to say that readers should consider checking out the tech specs and then just going out and buying the two movies, they are both strong, clever magician dramas that are equally worthy of a place in your collection.
Reluctant fellow apprentice magicians Angier and Borden make their bread and butter working as plants on a trick that involves Angier's wife escaping from her bonds trapped upside down in a chamber full of water. Needless to say, things don't go well and Angier ends up blaming Borden for his tragic loss. Soon the once fellow magicians are bitter rivals, working different sides of the street, trying to upstage one another and, pulling out all the stops in their vicious mutual dirty tricks campaigns, with a view to destroying one another. The bitter rivalry that occurs sweeps up everybody and everything around these two adversaries, destroying their relationships, their ability to trust and giving them but one goal: to provide the greatest magic trick in the world.
The Prestige is an extremely dark, powerful drama about egos, competition and the kind of blind pursuit of a dream that can make your life, and the lives of those around you, a nightmare. It can actually be quite emotionally draining (and at the same time compelling) to watch these two repeatedly take stabs at one another, sabotaging each other's acts - and resorting to far worse - in their journey to mutual self-destruction. At times it even reminded me of the bitter Ben Affleck / Samuel L. Jackson movie Changing Lanes, where the two leads there follow parallel paths of mutual hatred. The only trouble with that, and this movie, was the fact that it leaves you wondering whether who to relate to. Such coldly damaging individuals are not that easy to sympathise - or empathise - with, and often the great sacrifices that the two make 'in pursuit of the ultimate magic trick' only make them commit unforgiveable, incomprehensible acts of betrayal and destruction.
If there is anybody here you can side with more, it is Christian Bale's rough-around-the-edges Borden, whose initial mistake sets the two of them on this rollercoaster ride to hell. His tricks are more genuine, his relationship even, slightly more accessible, and his pursuit of the dream marginally less blind. I say only marginally, but it is still enough when compared to Hugh Jackman's Angier, who seems to have nothing original to offer and proceeds to either borrow, copy, steal or buy up other people's work, and whose final, great magic trick is the biggest anticlimax in the movie. Funnily enough, however, this is a relatively small price to pay for watching the rest of what is still a great, epic magician movie.
And despite the characters they play, credit must be given to the great cast and their performances. Bale still has the edge, once again showing his versatility as an actor, and reigning in another great performance for Director Chrisopher Nolan, who he worked with on Batman Begins (the sequel to which I am eagerly anticipating). His almost bipolar character is certainly the better grounded, more human of the two, and Bale brings across the humanity, the wit, the love and compassion, as well as the darker side to his conflicted Borden. Hugh Jackman is an actor who I have much less time for. Sure, he did well centre-stage as Wolverine, but I still maintain that his character was not respectful of its comic origins, and he has gone on to play the same arrogant, know-it-all hero in everything from the anorexically thin Van Helsing to the visually opulent but otherwise unsubstantial The Fountain. Here that arrogance and pompousness works pretty perfectly for the part of Angier, although it leaves you both disliking the character and maybe even disliking the actor a bit as a result.
To accompany the powerful two core leads, we get another great supporting role from an older and wiser Michael Caine, who has been going from strength to strength ever since his resurface in the little-known Brit drama Shiner. His recent supporting performances in movies like Children of Men and Batman Begins are superior examples of what he still has to offer. Here, his backstage manager, Cutter, is an excellent counterpoint to the two warring magicians. We also get Rebecca Hall as Borden's distraught wife, Sarah, who cannot quite figure out who she is married to and Scarlett 'Lost in Translation' Johansson as Angier's showgirl, Olivia. Rounding off the cast there's Coyote Ugly's Piper Perabo as Angier's ill-fated wife and David Bowie - the first time I've seen him in a movie in years - as the mysterious scientist, Tesla.
The Prestige is a superb companion piece (or vice versa) to the other recent magician drama, The Illusionist. Between the great performances, the stylish direction by Christopher 'Memento' Nolan, the lavish sets, the surprisingly dark characters and the twists and turns of the narrative, it is utterly watchable and genuinely enthralling. Sure, I have my reservations - in my opinion the 'real' Transported Man trick was one trick too far - but overall it is still a superb, superior movie that is worthy of a place in anybody's film collection.
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