'The Prestige' *** 111506


The Work = ***
‘The Prestige’ is the latest film from director Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker who has helmed some great films (my favorites are ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia.’) This movie looks at the lives of two magicians in the late 1800s. When first introduced, they are just apprentices to a successful magician named Milton (played by real life magician Ricky Jay.) The first apprentice Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) would seem to be the less ambitious of the two. The second, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is brash and careless; wanting to make changes to a magic act that may very well be life threatening. The two are corralled by wise old stage manager Cutter (Michael Caine) who also doubles as a sort of narrator to the film.

Soon, the two apprentices split away from Milton and their characters true natures begin to emerge. Alfred may be brash but he is also a craftsman, refining his technique, performing dangerous tricks and taking any gig he can get. Robert is a better showman, in love with the celebrity his performance brings, he is bitterly jealous of Alfred’s talent. The nature of the two men is one of a few stumbling blocks that I had with ‘The Prestige.’ Neither one of them were terribly likeable and as their conflict began to heat up I had trouble routing for either one.

Up until now everything I have said makes the story of the two magicians sound relatively straight forward but Nolan and crew perform a little magic of their own with the narrative of the film. The movie zigzags back and forth in time and jumps from Robert’s story to Alfred’s. The effect is disorienting but also engaging. It reminded me of the story that unfolds in reverse order in Nolan’s ‘Memento.’ Like that film, ‘The Prestige’ was co-written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan. Also like that film the conclusion of 'The Prestige' can’t live up to the twisty build up of the narrative. Despite the clever story I somehow ended up ahead of the movie and as a result many of the twists towards the end seemed very predictable. Still, the ride along the way is fun and there is a lot to admire in ‘The Prestige.’

The magician's rivalry becomes increasingly violent throughout the film as the two men increase the level of damage they try to do to one another. Their confrontations reminded me of the underrated Ridley Scott film ‘The Duellists’ in which two men have a series of duels with one another over the course of many years. The bitter competition that Robert and Alfred have in ‘The Prestige’ is mirrored within the film by a rivalry between an embittered Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) and an unseen Thomas Edison. This brings up another problem I had with the film: the battle between the inventors seemed more interesting than the one between the two main characters.

Bowie as Tesla proves to be downright ingenious casting. I never would have suspected that the performer would be so suited to the inventor but he is. Bowie plays the role as a sort of Victor Frankenstein who has fallen from grace. He even has an Igor-like assistant: Alley (played by the reliable Andy Serkis.) Serkis is known for playing the soul behind a couple of digital creatures but the guy is not just a monster maker. Here he plays a fiercely loyal employee who is still somewhat intimidated by some of Tesla’s work. His experiments are something to be seen and border on the edges of reality. So bitter is Tesla’s rivalry with Edison that Edison sends thugs after him.

In the end there is a lot to like in ‘The Prestige’ and at the center of the film is a struggle many artists go through. With fame and success do you perfect your craft or do you perfect your performance? Everyone knows some great talent that hasn’t made it big, whether they are musicians, actors, painters, etc. and sometimes they are even able to knock the socks off of their more famous celebrity counterparts. Does one perfect their craft at the expense of finding success? How much would one give for their art? Would one give up the possibility of success to paint the perfect picture? Does finding success mean one can no longer practice great art? These are some of the struggles that I think are at the core of ‘The Prestige’ and are embodied in the characters of Robert and Alfred. Recommended


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