I’ve had a somewhat minor interest in magic for a number of years. Penn and Teller provided slight amusement on occasion, and Dynamo was a staple of my early childhood. The problem with Dynamo though is that his tricks became a chore when you figured out how he did it. A cardinal sin that is the make or break of a magician’s performance, which Michael Caine is quick to point out in The Prestige, the “how” of a trick is all a magician really has to keep a shroud of mystery about their performance.
That in turn leads to heated rivalries, other magicians trying to figure out one another’s work. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are at each other’s throats for the entire movie. A rivalry seeped in seduction, bribery, twists and turns and red herrings. Director Christopher Nolan does a great job of showcasing this volatile relationship between Angier and Borden. Each man trying to get the better of the other.
For the most part, the movie does incredibly well in showing this cat and mouse game. Throughout the entire movie it’s never entirely clear who is going to come out on top. Angier seems to be the desperate man looking for a way to end his feud while Borden seeks only redemption. The narrative hops between the two at a rapid pace, giving us the sense we should be rooting for both, or neither, of the characters before us.
The performances are stellar, as you would expect. Bale and Jackman have some great scenes together, some transcend the realms of plausibility, but at least there are more than a few extremely strong scenes in there. Michael Caine is great as ever, the wise old magician who surmises how tricks work. Caine plays elderly, wise figures so well it has become a staple of his craft in the rebirth of his later work. It’s tremendous, something he started doing decades ago in Educating Rita, and has since expanded on in his twilight years of acting.
Like any good magician, Nolan has a few tricks up his sleeve for the plot of his movie, keeping The Prestige firmly away from the expected tribulations of a dramatic, near thriller. While he doesn’t show off as much spectacle with his direction as, say, Memento or the later Inception, his solid output provides a spotlight for the performances, with more than a handful shining through on some truly inspired work.