- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

“Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts,” explains Cutter (Sir Michael Caine) at the start of “The Prestige.”

The first is the pledge: “The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course, it probably isn’t.” Next is the turn: “The magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary.” But most important is the prestige: “This is the part with the twists and turns … and you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.”

The same could be said of a Christopher Nolan film.

The English filmmaker is best known for 2000’s “Memento,” one of the most clever movies of the past decade. Mr. Nolan’s backward-moving film didn’t just play with our expectations about time; its novel narrative had an unreliable narrator who couldn’t even rely on himself.

“The Prestige,” which takes place in turn-of-the-century London, is very different from “Memento” — Mr. Nolan, who also made “Batman Begins” and “Insomnia,” has resisted repeating himself. However, the novel by Christopher Priest, from which Mr. Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan adapted the screenplay for “The Prestige,” provides fertile material for the director to explore further how film can play with our narrative expectations as much as the novel does.

Cutter, played with sly finesse by Mr. Caine, is an ingeneur, someone who creates the magic tricks the showmen use. His protege is Robert Angier (“X-Men’s” Hugh Jackman, transitioning easily from an action star with this arresting performance), an upper-class illusionist with a lot of style. He doesn’t have his own show yet. Neither does his colleague, Alfred Borden (the intense Christian Bale of “Batman Begins”).

The competition between the two is friendly until a trick involving Angier’s wife (“Coyote Ugly’s” Piper Perabo, wearing more clothing here) goes tragically awry. It sparks one of the most single-minded rivalries on film. As the movie opens, Borden is on trial for killing Angier. The film uses flashbacks — each magician reading the other’s diary at one point — to explain how one-upmanship became an obsession for them both.

“You’re a magician, not a wizard,” Cutter tells Angier, discussing a trick. “You’ve got to get your hands dirty.”

Both men do. Just how dirty they get will astound audiences, like the best magic tricks do.

“The Prestige” is a period piece, a Hitchcockian thriller and a science-fiction picture rolled into one. The look of the film is impeccable; from Angier’s sumptuous surroundings to Borden’s working-class world, “The Prestige” takes place in a somewhat Dickensian London. As the rivalry between Angier and Borden becomes more intense, so does the suspense.

The sci-fi element appears when Angier travels to Colorado to consult physicist-inventor Nikola Tesla. The Serbian scientist is played by musician David Bowie in some inspired casting — one larger-than-life figure played by another. Tesla also has his own rivalry, with Thomas Edison.

As Angier and Borden each tries to outdo the other onstage, the tricks get more complicated, for the audiences inside and outside the film.

“A pretty assistant is the most effective form of misdirection,” Mr. Caine notes, and Scarlett Johansson more than does the job. As usual, she seems to be speaking through the camera, begging us to fall into lust with her. Her Olivia gets tangled up in the plot as assistant and lover to both men.

Alfred’s wife, Sarah, has a more ambivalent attitude toward magic. Played by British newcomer Rebecca Hall, she’s a powerful example of how damaging illusion can be.

“The Prestige” is the second film released this year about magic at the turn of the century. “The Illusionist” was a love story. “The Prestige” is about our love for many things — ourselves, others, a good show. Ultimately, though, it’s about the irresistible desire for something larger than ourselves.

“The Prestige” is one of the most entertaining films of the year. It’s also one of the few you’ll think about long after you have left the theater.

***1/2

TITLE: “The Prestige”

RATING: PG-13 (violence and disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

WEB SITE: theprestige.movies.

go.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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