Although it’s about two rival prestidigitators who try to outdo one another with amazing tricks, and is directed by the virtuoso Christopher Nolan, the man who gave us “Memento” (as well as “Batman Begins”), “The Prestige” is seriously short of cinematic magic. It’s a ponderous tale of envy and one-upmanship that promises much but in the end delivers surprisingly little.
That’s curious, given that the picture opens with an elaborate explanation, delivered by the old illusion-creator Cutter played by Michael Caine, of how a successful trick is structured–a pattern the script, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, obviously aims to imitate. It begins with an apparently “ordinary” (or at least not incredible) premise–in this case an on-stage accident which takes the life of Julia (Piper Perabo), the magician’s assistant and wife of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), one of the magician’s apprentices, who blames Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), the other apprentice, for her death. Then it proceeds to do something unusual with the premise–here, detailing a long-term performance duel between Angier and Borden in which each seeks to destroy the other professionally and personally. The rivalry ramps up when Borden unveils an astonishing trick, in which he’s miraculously transported from one side of the stage to another. An effort to find out the secret to that effect leads Angier to send his lovely assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to Borden as a spy–with unfortunate results–and to Angier’s trying to duplicate the feat in a way that Borden unravels and then fatally undercuts. That leads Angier to track down the mysterious Italian inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), Thomas Edison’s great rival and Borden’s supposed source, to develop a superior version of the illusion–which in turn takes the two men’s battle to a still higher level. All of which leads to what in the trade is called the “prestige”–the astonishing reversal, here involving another death (Angier’s, shown at the beginning of the film, for which Borden is convicted of his murder–also shown early on) and a series of revelations that explain what’s preceded, as well as the truth about how things actually turned out.
This precis has been kept fairly general to avoid “spoiling” the ending–something that would be as unconscionable in the case of a movie that’s attempting to fool you as it is with a magic trick. But it’s not improper to say that the big surprises regarding the duplication tricks, when they come, are either limp (in Borden’s case) or more than a little silly (in Angier’s). Some will say that as puzzle solutions, they’re simply unfair, since they haven’t been properly prepared for. But in any case, as legerdemain they’re surely unsatisfying.
Still, one might be willing to swallow a disappointing denouement if what’s preceded it has been sufficiently engaging. Unfortunately, despite an excellent physical production (by designer Nathan Crowley, art director Kevin Kavanaugh, set decorator Julie Ochipinti and costumer Joan Bergin), most of “The Prestige” is an oddly plodding affair, in which Nolan fails to match the vigor and intelligence of his earlier work. And the lead actors aren’t at their best, either. Caine comes off reasonably well, using his customary crusty elan to energize his scenes. But while it’s easy to understand why Jackman would have embraced a part that essentially allows him to give two performances–actors love to have an opportunity to show their versatility–he comes off strangely flat. And Bale, who’s done some really extraordinary turns in pictures like “American Psycho” and “The Machinist,” is no more than conventionally blustery as the lower-class Borden. (The big revelation about the character late on makes the performance, in retrospect, seem even weaker.) And then there’s Johansson, a lovely girl who once again shows herself an amateurish actress, particularly when outfitted in period dress. The only cast member who really stands out, in fact, is Bowie, who with thick black hair, impeccably tailored suits and a cooly enigmatic air, makes Tesla a striking figure. But he’s just window dressing in an otherwise rather mundane exhibit.
“The Prestige” also has the misfortune to follow “The Illusionist” into theatres. It’s not a literal, and inferior, copy of the that film, as “Infamous” is of “Capote,” but the comparisons are decidedly not in its favor. “The Illusionist” may be flawed, but its sleight of hand is still much more mesmerizing than what Nolan offers here.