Mystery and misdirection drive magic thriller "The Prestige"

by Eric Melin on October 19, 2006

in Print Reviews

“The Prestige” may be the second movie to come out this year featuring magicians at the turn of the century, but it is the only one that offers an in-depth look at what drives the men behind the magic. “The Illusionist” is an undercooked love triangle dressed up in Victorian clothes, while “The Prestige,” with its time-shifting narrative, replicates the actual construction of a magic trick itself.

According to illusion designer Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), every magic trick has three acts:

The Pledge – where the magician shows you something ordinary.

Chances are, it probably isn’t. American magician Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) falls through a trapdoor during a disappearing act as his bitter rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) looks on underneath the London stage. What waits below, however, is not safety, but a water torture tank that slams shut and locks. Borden is tried and jailed for the drowning death of his former friend and colleague.

The movie starts with this disturbing jolt, and rarely lets up from there. Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan employs constant flashbacks and flash-forwards to control the tension much like he did in his breakthrough film “Memento.” We learn that their animosity towards each other stems from an incident where Borden’s recklessness during a performance caused the death of someone close to Angier. Was it really recklessness, or something else?

The script, co-written by the director’s brother Jonathan Nolan (who also co-wrote “Memento”) is masterful at revealing very specific bits of information that keep the audience guessing at the bigger picture. Just when you think you’ve got one thing figured out, another mystery is introduced. All this is for naught if there is nobody to care about, but Jackman and Bale inject humanity into these driven performers who sacrifice everything for their craft. The story would be just as fascinating if it were free of twists, and merely followed the obsessions of Angier and Borden.

The Turn – where the ordinary object does something extraordinary.

Borden may have used a machine built by electrical engineer and renowned inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) in his newest sensational illusion, billed as “The Transported Man.” Up in the mountains of Colorado, the “man who invented the twentieth century” is secretly at work on experiments with alternating currents, doing amazing things like powering hundreds of light bulbs without any wires. Angier must compete with Borden’s trick, so he visits Tesla to commission a machine that will allow the magician to teleport from one door to another onstage.

Instead of sticking with sleight-of-hand, “The Prestige” also adds the wildness of emerging scientific discovery into the mix. The second industrial revolution was brimming with new and amazing technologies, and the movie teases with the captivating idea that a long-lost technological breakthrough by Tesla could have existed at this time. Maybe it was discarded due to morality and ethics issues, something that these magicains seem to be lacking in sorely. Adding some real “magic” to the story gives it the same excitement that people of the time must have felt—that anything was possible.

The Prestige -the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.

Magic is the art of misdirection. As a storytelling device, it can be tricky. “The Prestige” delights in misdirection, dropping clues every step of the way.  Like a convincing magic trick, it makes you question what you perceive to be reality. Nolan constantly redefines the boundaries of the tale, and along with it, the stakes of the characters. The screenplay is adapted from a book by Christopher Priest. Although the characters and setting remain, the Nolans have reconstructed the sequences and some of the events to wring out maximum suspense.

Not content with one surprise ending, “The Prestige” has several threads that unravel in its final minutes. While I had already figured out both of them to a certain extent, there was a still dramatic element tied in to the fates of Borden and Angier. I wanted to know what would happen to them. M. Night Shyamalan could learn a thing or two from the Nolans when it comes to dramatic tension and payoff. A good story isn’t just about the twist, it’s about people.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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