Cinema Signal:

Magic in the 19th Century
by Eliphas Levi
. "The Prestige"

The title refers to a magician's term for a magic act's payoff. You can't just disappear the bird, you've got to make it seem gone for good and then show your mastery by bringing it back. The moment of ahh's and ohh's requires a special word. "Prestige" is that word.

Prestige in the general sense is what Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), our lead magicians are after, and they're fiendishly tricky about getting it. Their ace-in-the-hole is ace magic designer Cutter (Michael Caine) in their corner (as though it's a boxing match) and under their stage, designing and erecting comtraptions of illusion. His job is to keep the tricks working and keep the act going and himself employed. It's a life's work and a bracing challenge, after all.

The first deception is a disappearing woman. Every good act is made that way in part with the right assistant. A beautiful woman is prime stuff if your aim is to distract. You can't go wrong with Julia (winsome Piper Perabo) for that purpose. And Angier didn't go wrong when he married her. Their love for each other is evident.

The stunt requires two volunteers. Our boys are planted in the audience for that purpose and get "selected." They proceed to tie the beauteous assistant hand and feet to a lift. Angier kisses her leg surreptitiously as he does so. When they're done, a hook drops and lifts her from her wrists. She ascends, then is released and falls through the stage into a water-filled tank below, effecting the "disappearance." What makes this possible is the slip knot that will allow her to unlock the tank, release the water, and not drown. It's a knot only a magician can be entrusted to tie. So why did Borden do so bad a job that she does drown? Dead.

From here on out the boys are enemies, competing for the best prestige, the biggest acclaim, the acknowledgement of being the best. In a twisting tale of one-upmanship, the stakes stay high, the tricks simple but increasingly outstanding for their apparent impossibility. Angier pursues electrical wizard Tesla (David Bowie), who uses science for his master tricks. After remarrying, Angier hires Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) for his new assistant and, soon to follow, lover. Enter two more elements in the competition.

Borden comes up with it first--the devilishly superior trick. Called, "The Transported Man," Angier finds a way to imitate it with the use of a double but is so desparate to figure out how Borden is doing it that he sends Olivia to Borden to convince him that she has left Angier but will really be his spy. But will she really? Seduce and betray Borden, or the other way around? Remember, deception is the name of this game and seduction can backfire like a bad trick. Desperation, obsession and a double cross or two drive this act. The ultimate Prestige is what's at stake.

All these actors bring their best tricks of skill to the game to weave a longish tale of mystery and the darker recesses of the magical art. For this they're greatly aided by the mischievous direction and misdirections of Christopher Nolan, co-writing with Jonathan Nolan, adapting from the novel by Christopher Priest.

And to further the tensions between the vying magicians whose morality is doing a disappearing act of its own, you are immersed into the dark, secuctive atmospherics of Wally Pfister's lighting, an element as integral to the proceedings as any other. The artistry this cinematographer is able to add to a project may have come to Nolan's attention when he saw "Batman Begins."

Music by David Julyan admirably assists, perhaps more than I was aware of at the time.

The obsessive-compulsive disorder that propels the drama into a miasma of misplaced morality is as fascinating as it is designed to be with perhaps a repetition or two that takes some edge off the otherwise crisp showmanship. One is left with questions about the cause and origin of Borden's criminal cleverness. It admits a level of demoniacal wickedness to the competition and intensity to the drama. So, since this is a mystery, it's probably proper to not have everything revealed.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman
Masters at deception; victims of obsession.

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