Magical Mystery Tour
The first question, obviously, is: How much like The Illusionist is The Prestige? And the answer is: quite a bit, and not at all. Thematically both films cover much the same ground — how we make ourselves willing fools in the name of entertainment, whether we’re looking to be deceived by stage magicians or, in the meta, by the conjurings of filmmakers — but the very nature of those themes make The Prestige impossible to resist even if you’ve already been happily fooled by The Illusionist. If you get an enormous tickle out of being tricked by a movie — and more than that: if you are thrilled by the very act of trying to figure out how a movie is trying to trick you — then The Prestige is a must-see.
But you knew that already. Because everything you’ve seen and think you know about this movie screams geek nirvana, and you’re peeing in your pants with anticipation hoping that you’re right. And you are.
And there’s the major difference between the two films. The Illusionist is soft and romantic and cozy in between all the electrifying bits, and The Prestige is unabashedly pulpy, lurid, and juicy; electrifying, sure, but with, you know, actual voltage. The Illusionist has gauzy, sigh-inducing romance, and The Prestige has Nikola Tesla as played by David Bowie. The Illusionist is an unquestionably wonderful film; The Prestige is a fan-fuckin’-tastic popcorn flick that’s as smart as it is shifty, like some lost Alan Moore graphic novel come to life, like something Jules Verne would have written if he were Neil Gaiman. It’s Victorian steam punk– no, it’s like it’s inventing electricity punk just before the dawning of the Edwardian era. It’s deliciously retro century-old pre-atomic science fiction, a mesmerizing journey into a lost world in which scientific possibilities seemed unbounded and probability waves had not yet collapsed into the reality we know today.
All that comes late in the film, yet the feeling of ripe, undiscovered potential hangs over the story from the beginning, as the rivalry between two magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London heats up. Elegant Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman: X-Men: The Last Stand, Van Helsing) is a masterful showman as well as an astonishingly talented conjuror; rough-hewn Alfred Borden (Christian Bale: Batman Begins, Reign of Fire) is even more talented with sleight-of-hand, but his stagecraft is far poorer. What begins as a partnership unravels into a competition both take in deadly earnest as they attempt to steal the secrets of each other’s tricks, and succeed in stealing far more significant things, too.
The script — by director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Insomnia) and his brother, Jonathan (who also cowrote Nolan’s Memento), and based on a novel by Christopher Priest — is itself a juggling act, bouncing back and forth in time, teasing us with snippets of information doled out slowly in a way that’s wonderfully agonizing, and then suddenly taking wicked 90-degree turns that call into question everything that’s come before. Angier says at what appears to be the height of their war that Borden seems to believe that “he’s the only one who understands the true nature of magic” — if there is a true nature, what we’ve seen to this point suggests that it is violent, vicious, and sneaky.
Even without the directive to “watch closely” that comes in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, even without the explanation by Angier’s trick designer, Cutter (Michael Caine: Bewitched, Around the Bend), about how a successful illusion must end with a killer “prestige,” a series of shocking twists, you’d know from the very instant the movie begins that Nolan is out to trip you up. And so The Prestige comes laden with a whole extra layer of suspense: not only are you wondering how the characters will resolve their differences, you’re straining to figure out where the wool is being pulled over our eyes, because you know it’s happening — how could it not be? And so every other line becomes a clue… or does it? When Cutter notes that pretty assistants are the best distraction onstage, keeping the audience’s eye off the magician, well, then it becomes obvious what purpose Scarlett Johansson (The Black Dahlia, The Island) is serving for Nolan; that is, the same one her Olivia Wenscombe serves for Angier as his assistant. Or is Jackman himself Nolan’s attractive distraction, all matchless masculine grace and sophistication, a paradox of stardom, usually at center stage, become its own effective misdirection? (Jackman’s performance here is extraordinary, maybe his best yet: with a shift in body language and a slackening of his face, which he must do for reasons I won’t reveal, he suddenly looks like a completely different person. Which isn’t to slight Bale; he and Jackman are supremely well matched, his Borden an intense ball of rage that’s almost exhausting to watch.)
You’ll probably begin to guess at the outlines of what’s really going on, and as the film edges closer to its dark and edgy ending, you may even see it coming. But that cannot ruin the mordant loopiness of the film, which holds in high regard the power of the shocking and the absurd, nor does it diminish the pure thrill of feeling as if a movie is having a conversation with you. A conversation full of deceit and delay, sure, but that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?