According to Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” magic tricks are split into three parts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The first being where you’re introduced to something ordinary but promised something extraordinary, the middle being where the suspense grows as the trick is in motion and the final where the trick pays off as promised or better. If we were to judge “The Prestige” by the very criteria it sets for magic, it’d have a promising pledge and turn, but ultimately a weak prestige.
Based on Christopher Priest’s novel, “The Prestige” tells the tale of rival magicians Angier (Jackman) and Borden (Bale), two men who start out as simple magicians looking for the next best trick. Fueled by their obsessions with both magic and each other, their lives intersect in increasingly tragic ways. In fact, their game of magic trick one-upmanship is only surpassed by the parallel game of violent revenge they begin to exact on each other as the film goes on. Add together Nikola Tesla (Bowie) and real-magic-through-technology, and you’ve got an almost solid puzzle to piece together.
I say “almost solid” because the film telegraphs its resolution fairly early on, and if you pick up on it, said telegraphed resolution is then slammed repeatedly over your head with the blatant mise en scène. I don’t want to give anything away for those who will see the film regardless of what I write (and let’s be honest, there are many people who will) but when symbolism becomes that obvious it goes beyond mere cleverness and dances into condescension. And in situations such as these, you need to be able to grasp onto something else to pull you through the story, but the characters are so vile in their obsessions that you don’t really want any of them succeed.
The cast acquits themselves nicely to their roles, with Jackman and Bale both behaving like magical bastards, and Scarlett Johansson doing a fine job as mistress-with-the-push-up-corset, but to what end? We certainly don’t care about any of these despicable characters as the film winds on, and the only moments of true joy come when Michael Caine, David Bowie or Andy Serkis are on screen. Part of me would’ve preferred that we followed the story of Bowie’s Tesla and Serkis’s apprentice rather than continue with the magicians, or maybe just spend more time with Caine’s Cutter.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll find the film is more loosely based than a straight-up translation. A major plot-framing device from the book is left out (and thankfully, as I can’t imagine how the movie would’ve worked had it been included), and many details, including aspects of the story’s resolution, are switched out for more easily translated cinematic ones. So if you’re one of those people who feel the film never lives up to the book, well, you may not be disproved here but, at the same time, the film does live okay in the separate body in which it has grown into. But when it’s Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Christopher Nolan behind-the-scenes, being just “okay” is disproportionately disappointing.
As I said earlier, “The Prestige” is promising through its first and second acts, and there is a bit of true suspense that builds in that middle chunk (more in regards to wondering how gruesome the rivalry can get rather than anything else), but the ending delivers on none of the promises set up throughout the film. When all is said and done and you get the full explanation of what meant what and who did what to whom, it’s not fulfilling at all. It’s a magic trick that’s all showmanship and craft, but lacking true whimsy, ultimately failing the audience.