Smoke and mirrors

The Prestige takes time for the real magic to unfold

TRICK OR TREAT?<br>“Can you see the fishing line?” Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman in <i>The Prestige</i>.

“Can you see the fishing line?” Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige.

The Prestige Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

This beguilingly convoluted account of anextravagant rivalry between two 19th-century magicians begins, more or less, with an apparent murder. And very early on it has multiple voice-over narrators drawing us into an increasingly elaborate network of flashbacks concerning the overlapping personal histories of the two magicians (played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) and the events leading up to, and then beyond, the death of one of them in an incident during a stage performance.But it’s not until we’re nearly halfway through this two-hour movie labyrinth (from writer-director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriting brother Jonathan, the creators of Memento) that its unfolding dramatic fantasy becomes something more compelling than an array of clever curiosities. Even with that semblance of murder-mystery hanging over the proceedings, the emerging double portrait of the rival magicians doesn’t really catch fire until we begin to see that the rivalry is only part of the story.

As the story’s patterns and motifs gradually accumulate and intersect, the tale of rivalry and obsession begins expanding in ways that echo, and comment on, the two magicians’ own ambitions—including character impulses that are larger than life.

In style that is sometimes both maddening and amusing, The Prestige concerns itself with doubles, twins and alter-egos; with artistic ambition and Faustian overreachers; and with science, imagination and metaphysics—the latter in part by way of historical figure Nikola Tesla (played here, with modest authority, by David Bowie) who figures in certain of the magicians’ more far-flung exploits.

As such, the Nolans’ scenario has roots in the dark side of literary Romanticism, including the fiction of Poe, Dostoevsky and Mary Shelley as well as Jorge Luis Borges and various practitioners of post-modernist narrative. Veteran cinephiles may also come to notice influences as diverse as assorted 1930s horror classics (Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Love, etc.), on the one hand, and Citizen Kane on the other.

I’m not ready to call The Prestige a masterpiece, but it does have its moments of extraordinary brilliance, and it is noteworthy that those moments are often bits of quiet observation amid the story’s inherent blood and thunder. A brief close up of Bale glumly doing a coin trick with a wedding ring during a bedroom scene is one key example.