'Prestige' Has Something Nice Up Its Sleeve

Christian Bale in
Christian Bale in "The Prestige," which has more movie magic than "The Illusionist" did. (By Stephen Vaughan -- Touchstone Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

Here's something every critic lives to be able to write: If you see one magic-at-the-turn-of-the-century movie this year, make it "The Prestige"!

The other turn-of-the-century-magic movie this year, of course, was "The Illusionist," which starred Edward Norton as a conjurer in Vienna who enters into a crafty cat-and-mouse game with a police chief played by Paul Giamatti.

"The Prestige" also features two terrific actors -- Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman -- playing off each other, as prestidigitators competing for fame in 19th-century London. Throw Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie into the mix and you have a classy, intriguing thriller that keeps viewers guessing but, unlike its less twisty but more opaque predecessor, gives viewers a fighting chance to figure it all out before the third-act Big Reveal.

Bale and Jackman play Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, who start out as magicians' assistants before breaking out on their own, an event hastened by the premature death of the wife of one of the men. Their rivalry takes on life-and-death proportions, as Angier obsessively tries to steal Borden's secrets, a quest that eventually lands him in Colorado Springs, where Nikola Tesla (Bowie) is experimenting with the kinetic effects of electrification. Meanwhile, the men are observed and advised by their mentor, an éminence gris named Cutter (Caine), who has seen it all before through rheumy, knowing eyes.

Director Christopher Nolan is best known for his mind-game thriller "Memento," but he keeps the structural gimmickry at bay here, focusing instead on his characters and making sure that their labyrinthine feints retain logic and legibility. The title "The Prestige" refers to the third part of a magic trick when whatever has disappeared is restored, as Cutter explains, so that the audience's cathartic needs are met. And the film lives up to its title. The tricks themselves -- the inevitable errant birds, a woman plunged into a tub of water, a man seeming to appear out of nowhere -- are beautifully choreographed, and allowed their share of mystery before they're explained.

Those explanations are always a letdown, as a briefly enchanted world is revealed once again to be the same old vale of tawdry deception. But up through its own third act, "The Prestige" is full of modest, well-crafted pleasures. Chief among them are the people who populate its world, from the wonderful troika of lead actors to such new faces as Rebecca Hall, who brings a wholesome, well-scrubbed freshness to Borden's oft-confused wife. "The Prestige" may not be high art -- after all, it is a magic-at-the-turn-of-the-century movie -- but it's an absorbing, diverting and entertaining example of some clever cinematic sleight of hand.

The Prestige (128 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

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