There are many kinds of magic: wizardry à la 'Harry Potter', illusions or hallucinations, or entertaining shows: mediums, rabbits in top-hats, women sawed in half, bag-content guessing, magic cards etc.
Speaking of cards, Christopher Nolan's "Prestige", made between two 'Batman' movies, lays its cards at the first voice-over monologue where we immediately recognize Michael Caine's smooth voice. It's about the third kind of magic and provides the three structural rules of an act: it starts with the Pledge: you show something normal then the Turn, you make it do something extraordinary... but there's an element of expectation and the higher your reputation goes, the more sophisticated the public. In fact, there's got to be something unpredictable, so it all comes down to the Prestige, the trick no one sees coming and will earn magicians applauses and guess what? prestige.
Then, the least you can expect from the film is to follow these three rules even in the loosest possible way if it means wowing you with a spectacular surprise. And given that it's a Nolan film about the deadly art of illusion, much more opening with the killing of a magician, the imprisonment of his rival whom everything accuses, your twist-radar is set from the start, so not any twist will do. Whatever the prestige will be, if it's not venturing in the realm of feasibility, something will have been missed. We're dealing with magic after all, not fantasy, not sci-fi. I insist on the sci-fi element because the film opens with some electrical contraption that shakes its credibility from the start until a reassuring trap door shows and we can let a sight of relief go.
French called electricity a Fairy so it all makes sense that magicians would use it as a device for generating illusion, just like rivals Edison and Tesla were perceived as wizards. After all, it's also established that magic is about what you see and what you don't and the use of lights and darkness is integral to the act. Still, I didn't like that machine. It felt incongruous and weird in a period drama and I was afraid Nolan would end up inserting some Batman-like device. And when he said in the "making of" video that he wanted to portray magic according to his personal vision of film-making, I thought "no kidding?", I'm pretty sure everyone got the parallel, especially when magical acts use special effects worthy of a Spielberg film.
So Nolan gets a little carried away at the end while the first two acts of the movie had really gotten me involved, I mean the escalating rivalry between the two magicians Alfred Bowden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and their attempts to destroy one's act or find one's secret. What Nolan got right is that the rivalry mostly works as a foil to plunge us in the world of magic and know all the tricks. After all, that's the greatest thrill about magic, seeing how it works. For instance, the way a magician puts a dove in a cage and then flattens it to magically making the dove reappear under a handkerchief always made me scratch my head... but in this Dickensian universe where there's no pity for little children, why should there for innocent animals?
The trigger of the rivalry also helps to understand how one of the most famous magic tricks, the "escape from the tank water" that made Houdini's reputation, is indirectly explained. Working as false audience members, Bowden and Angier are assigned to tie the magician's pretty assistant (Piper Perabo), one of them makes the kind of knot that doesn't leave any chance for the poor girl, who happens to be the other's wife. We gather that from then, it's personal. Another pivotal moment occurs when one conceives his masterpiece, an act that consists on getting in a door and coming out of another. He calls it "The Transported Man", for us, it looks like teleportation and it justifies why the rival is devoured by jealousy, although Caine's character can only see one explanation: there must be a double.
At that point of the review, it's impossible to go further without spoiling the film. It's engaging enough to make you forget there's a twist but it's not spoiling the film to say that there's a twist, since it's the essence of magic. You've got to wow the audience with a surprise at the end. With the seemingly death of a character right at the start of the film, the battle to know everyone's tricks and the existence of a double, anyone could reassemble the pieces of the puzzle. But you know Nolan has more than a trick in his sleeve and that's both a blessing and a curse. Granted anticipations are to be toyed a little to be emotionally rewarded, all he had to do was working on the narrative structure to make what we know first a more effective reveal or a shock.
Instead of that, Nolan relied on a far fetched revelation combined with an implementation that destroyed the whole atmosphere built throughout the film. From the start, we follow magicians who are dedicated to their passion, which is good, but the escalation toward sadism and some ends-justifying-the-means means made their whole approach to their art debatable, leaving no room for sympathy. In this cruel battle of wits, women are reduced to disposable pawns (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannsen would get more dimensional roles in a certain Woody Allen's movie).
The first two acts, we can call them 'pledges' and 'turns' are great but then the film goes downhill. One thing for sure, I hated that Tesla Machine, and no offense to David Bowie, but Tesla was quite a handsome fellow whom I doubt spoke with such a heavy British accent. Nolan wanted his film-making to echo magic, but he let the reverse thing operate.
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