Stage magic is a wonderful act, offering to the uninitiated a sense of wonder seldom found beyond childhood. But do the deceptions and illusions end on the stage? Not in The Prestige, a 2006 film adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name.
The Prestige is a tale of two London magicians whose escalating feud spans the end of the 19th century. This is not a friendly rivalry and is never professional, as it includes sabotage, kidnapping, bodily harm, and threats of worse. In a way, it's similar to The Count of Monte Cristo, except without knowing who to root for. Perhaps likening it to the Hatfields and the McCoys would be more accurate: a vendetta that spirals out of control to the point that winning becomes more important than whatever began the dispute in the first place.
The Prestige's title comes from the supposed three stages of an illusion: the pledge, in which the audience is hooked, usually with a distraction; the turn, in which something marvelous occurs; and the prestige, or resolution, in which all is revealed to be well (such as a woman sawed in half being returned to whole). This setup also serves for the film's format: the illusionist protagonists' stock in trade is secrets that they keep them not only from their loved ones, but also from us. The last half-hour of the film is intensely intriguing as the audience finally gets to peek behind the curtain and see how the tricks are done. It is also when the movie's credulity is strained, for what's purported to be science seems more akin to magic, and characters are revealed to be even more psychotic than expected. Although some of the mysticism is preserved from the book upon which the movie is based, the resolutions, motivations, and even moralities of the characters are starkly different.
It was the characters, or rather the actors, that first drew me to the film. In that capacity, The Prestige is a landmark of being the first Christian Bale film I liked, except maybe for Newsies. I was underwhelmed by Equilibrium and found nothing attractive in Batman Begins, to the point that I skipped on The Dark Knight. Finally, here's a role that suits him, and vice versa. The Prestige is also the first time I've seen Hugh Jackman do well in a non-Wolverine role. Thank goodness he chose to do this movie and not another Van Helsing! Also of note in the cast is Scarlett Johansson as a magician's assistant and mistress, and the character Nikola Tesla, played here by David Bowie of Labyrinth fame. I thought such a historical character's presence in this movie was a stretch, but some cursory research shows Tesla was indeed in Colorado Springs in 1899, conducting experiments that included using the Earth as a conductor, as depicted in this film.
The Prestige is a movie that begins at the end, with regular flashbacks and flashfowards — a technique not entirely unexpected when you observe the credits. The movie was directed by Christopher Nolan, who also directed Bale in his two Batman movies. Mr. Nolan is also well-known for Memento, which similarly played fast and loose with linear narrative. I didn't always know at the beginning of the scene when it was taking place, but I had it figured out by the time it ended.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have become famous for their roles as action superheroes. I was glad to have this opportunity to witness them flex their acting muscles, revealing themselves to be more well-rounded than I'd previously experienced. Alas, what makes The Prestige so compelling also makes it depressing. We the audience are never given a hero to believe in, and for practitioners of such black arts, there can be no happy endings.