Prestige, The

dir: Christopher Nolan
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Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is one of the most intriguing and entertaining films of the year. If you told me that a film about two rival magicians at the end of the 19th Century would be a winner, I'd have told you to pull something else apart from a rabbit out of a hat.

The first image of the film is a winter scene on a hill, with dozens of top hats reclining upon in it in various states of disarray: one of the magician's most cliché of tools and part of their uniform. A voice asks us "Are you watching closely?"

Of course we're watching, but the magician's skill and the filmmaker's desire is to trick us whilst we're watching ever so carefully.

A different voice-over soon also starts up, explaining the film's title to us. The magic trick, as performed on stage in that era, is comprised of three parts. The Pledge involves showing the audience the elements of the trick, to convince them of the normality of the stage and the lack of dodgy machines. Of course, the machinery and parts that make the trick work are in plain view, but they look normal.

The Turn is where the freaky part begins: i.e. the person in the box disappears, or the female assistant in the box is cut in half. It's where the first major component of the trick happens. Of course, as we are told, the audience doesn't applaud when the pigeon disappears or when the assistant gets trapped in a watery grave.

The Prestige is where the real money shot is. You have to bring the disappeared animal or audience member back, or if the magician is seemingly trapped inside a watery tank about to drown, they have to be back on the stage alive in order to get the applause.

Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) start off as friends and fellow apprentice magicians to an old hack played by Ricky Jay. In the hack's employ is an ingeneur called Cutter (Michael Cain), which is a fancy sounding name for the guy who makes the machines that make the tricks possible.

A trick goes horribly wrong on stage, resulting in death, and the two men become bitter enemies. But beyond that, they become rivals for the affections of the fickle crowds, who have seen it all before. Each time one of them comes up with a trick, the other comes along and either tries to find out how it's done or makes sure that the other stuffs it up.

Borden eventually comes up with a trick that delivers: The Transported Man. He walks into one box and then appears instantly in another box on the other side of the stage.

Angier, now calling himself the Great Danton, becomes obsessed with finding out how he does it, all the while finding his own way of achieving success by faking the trick in his own way. Whilst Borden is an inspired magician who can easily detect how other magicians do their tricks, he lacks the showman's ability to be a major success. And where Angier has the showmanship, he lacks the imagination or inspiration to be able to come up with his own tricks.

Through a very convoluted pathway, Angier ends up in America trying to enlist the services of Nikola Tesla in the creation of a machine which can do the trick. The twist here (in a film overflowing in twists) is that Angier believes Tesla can build him a machine using the magic of electricity to do the trick for real. He believes, with Tesla's help, that he will be able to perform the ultimate Transported Man trick.

Tesla, played in an inspired piece of casting by David Bowie, is shown to be the real magician. A mad genius with electricity, we wonder whether he'll be able to make the miraculous commonplace, which the real Tesla did as well before he died in poverty and obscurity.

The film is complicated and convoluted, and, especially in its third act, almost too complicated to really get a handle on. The director and screenwriters are, after all, the same Nolans who produced Memento, which redefined the way the word 'convoluted' would be applied to movies. In which case, what actually happens down the track due to Angier's obsession with one-upping Borden, may be too much for an audience to bear. One crucial line of dialogue muttered by Angier towards the end holds the key as to what is actually going on, and how it happens, and the contents of a long row of containers beneath the stage also give an inkling.

But the crucial element is the genuinely frightening lengths a man will go to in order to achieve his objectives. The term 'self-sacrifice' is used by the characters in a way that becomes increasingly ironic as the film goes onward, until it reaches its ultimate expression.

This is an immaculately well crafted film. The acting is great throughout, the cinematography is fantastic and the dark and unsettling tone is maintained throughout visually, performance-wise and in the orchestral score. This is a dark film, make no mistake, but mostly in terms of the way the main characters become so single-minded in their obsessions that the price is most often paid by the people around them.

For fans of the book, the story and especially the framing device and ending are significantly different, and, I believe, the better for it. The 'explanation' is far more personal, far more terrible here in terms of everything that has gone on. It represents a significant difference in the two plots, but only purists would really go ballistic over it. It works very well as adapted, whilst keeping the essence of the story intact.

It is unlikely The Prestige will connect with a mass audience, which is a damned shame, because it is easily one of the best films of the year, and bears up, unlike most 'twist' films, upon second viewing. If anything, it is improved with subsequent viewings. That being said, the flick shouldn't be approached as a twist film, like M. Night Shyamalan crowd-squeezers or The Usual Suspects. Like most magic tricks, what interests us is how it's done, but in this case maybe what happens is more important and horrifying.

9 levels upon which this film is so good that I didn't even have to mention Scarlett Johansson is in it out of 10.

Rupert Angier: Which hat is mine?
Nikola Tesla: They are all your hats, Mr. Angier. – The Prestige.