That Old-Fashioned Magic on the Big Screen

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According to director Christopher Nolan's new movie, a great magic trick consists of three parts: "The Pledge," in which the illusionist produces a common object (or ordinary person) and promises to do something wondrous with it; "The Turn," in which he subjects this object to an astounding transformation; and, finally "The Prestige," in which perhaps a life, but certainly the illusionist's always tenuous hold on his audience, is held in thrilling and suspenseful balance. This narrative structure analogizes rather neatly to the customary three-act movie plot and it is both clever and apt of Nolan (he of the backwardly told Memento) to underscore this point.

The Prestige, which he co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan, presents us with two magicians, at first friends but soon enough deadly rivals: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), slick and romantically appealing, is a master of on-stage presentation; Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is his technical superior, but nowhere near so commanding a figure in the theater. One night something goes terribly wrong with their act (an assistant who happens also to be Angier's lover dies) and Borden is convicted of murder and languishes in jail, waiting to be hanged. Meanwhile, the radically deranged Angier seeks out a real historical figure, Nicola Tesla (pioneer of alternating current among many other inventions), who is marvelously played by David Bowie. Angier wants the inventor, who's into cloning, to supply him with the ultimate trick.

To be perfectly honest, The Prestige is wildly overplotted and it contains a final gimmick that you're going to kick yourself for not recognizing sooner. In this context, you're going to especially appreciate Michael Caine's work as Cutter, the man who engineers the lads' best illusions and who is, finally, the most sensible and sympathetic figure present, grounding the film in some sort of rationality. Yet for all the film's murky misdirections, it is very enjoyable. That's because Nolan's recreation of the illusionists' backstage world is so marvelously detailed, including as it does revelations of how some of their best tricks are accomplished. It's also because it conveys an excellent sense of the way these figures — the rock stars of their era — commanded their stages and the gaping attention of their public. In some measure it is because there are real romantic issues at stake in the film-emotional losses and betrayals (Scarlett Johansson's tricky, sexually riven character). Persuasively acted, this material is played with a simple, often dark and passionate force, that contrasts effectively with the spectacular chimeras over which Angier and Borden endlessly obsess.

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