Sleight of hand: the filmmaker’s illusions in The Prestige” (2006)

It’s funny how often Hollywood comes up with two very similar movies almost simultaneously. Two studio executives suddenly said—“Let’s greenlight a film on Truman Capote!” So now we can compare two Capote films. Similarly, The Prestige looks very much like The Illusionist. Both period films concern turn of the century European magicians, but while The Illusionist relies heavily on special effects and a revenge fantasy of a man returning to Vienna to win back his girl from an evil nobleman, The Prestige lays bare the mechanics of magic tricks to much better effect. Famed British director Alfred Hitchcock worked his best suspense by calling attention to the various filmic devices at his disposal, and in The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan pulls off a similar stunt by starting the movie with a discussion of the three parts of a magic trick. By letting us know how magic works, and by involving the audience in a rivalry between two magicians who want to know the other’s secrets, The Prestige continually cons the viewer just as a magician diverts our eyes from what is really going on onstage.

The fact that Nolan also has the combined acting talents of Hugh Jackman (playing Rupert Angier) and Christian Bale (as Alfred Borden) doesn’t hurt either. Clearly Jackman is ready to move beyond superhero roles, so he plays not only Angier, but also his drunkard double with skillful charm. As the more working class Borden, Bale reminds me too much of a younger Tom Cruise, but he also conveys the obsessive gleam needed for the role.

Early in the film, when the two younger men learn their craft by assisting another magician in tying up Rupert’s wife (Piper Perabo) before lowering her into a glass container of water, Borden tries out another kind of knot on her wrists that causes her to drown. When Rupert, in his grief, asks Borden what kind of knot he used, Borden answers with “I don’t know,” thus setting off a series of recriminations between the two men throughout the rest of the movie. Since their magic tricks are often elaborate and potentially deadly in the same vein as Harry Houdini’s work (who presides like an unacknowledged master over the film), they find convenient ways to hurt each other. When Angier slips a real bullet into a bullet-catching trick that lops off two of Borden’s fingers, Borden replies by breaking Angier’s leg in multiple places.

In this respect, The Prestige is curiously vicious. While other movies tend to have one sympathetic character with whom the audience can identify, neither Rupert or Alfred are very likable in their competitive and sneaky ways. What are magicians anyway? Show offs who like to impress people by misleading them for profit. There’s something manipulative, nasty, and ruthless about their whole world, a point that Nolan emphasizes by showing us how a bird in a cage disappears from atop a table. The bird vanishes because the magician collapses the cage inside the table so that the dove is instantly killed.

While Nolan handles the two leads well, the female roles are less successful. As Alfred’s wife Sarah, Rebecca Hall sulks for much of the film because her husband trades off his love for her with his love for magic. As the magician’s assistant Olivia, Scarlett Johansson plays a sexy ornament to the action in a way that is quickly becoming a cliché in her many recent roles. Esquire magazine anointed Johansson the “sexiest woman alive,” so she shows up to give this film and others such The Black Dahlia an erotic kick. While she can hold down a lead in such films as Lost in Translation, Johansson somehow underwhelms as a busty supporting character.

Regardless, The Prestige mostly concerns itself with male rivalry. Michael Caine adds class just by appearing as a friend to both magicians. David Bowie has an odd cameo as the reclusive scientific wizard Nikola Tesla who invents a Frankensteinian machine that shoot sparks in all directions. While one can criticize The Prestige for a being a little too much like a Rube Goldberg contraption that keeps harming people and small birds, it does have an ingenious ending that ties many loose ends together while leaving some mystery behind. The viewers of the movie, like the magician’s audience in the theater, want to be fooled, and by illustrating this point repeatedly, Nolan meditates on the parallels between magic and filmmaking.