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Movie review: 'The Prestige'

Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Most every great screenplay has three acts, too. But so do a lot of messed-up scripts, and siblings Jonathan and Christopher Nolan's adaptation of this novel by Christopher Priest offers three acts of exasperating muddle.

PopMatters review of The Prestige

"Every great magic trick has three acts," croaks a Cockneyed-up Michael Caine in the opening voice-over of "The Prestige" -- a title that refers to the big third-act payoff, the proverbial rabbit plucked from the master magician's hat.

Most every great screenplay has three acts, too. But so do a lot of messed-up scripts, and siblings Jonathan and Christopher Nolan's adaptation of this novel by Christopher Priest offers three acts of exasperating muddle.

Like "The Illusionist," the more successful, less grandiose movie about late-19th-century practitioners of the magic arts, "The Prestige" is set in a Europe (London, versus "The Illusionist's" Vienna) of horse-drawn hansoms and cobblestoned mews, of gas lanterns and gilded music halls. You expect Sherlock Holmes to turn the corner at the next street, and actually, that wouldn't have been a bad idea. Maybe he could have solved this puzzle.

"The Prestige," which was directed by Christopher Nolan -- of "Memento," "Insomnia" and "Batman Begins" -- traces the trajectories of dueling magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

As young apprentices, the men worked side by side (as ringers in the crowd) for an old conjurer, but a dreadful onstage accident involving the magician's beautiful assistant (Piper Perabo) -- who also happened to be Angier's wife -- scotched the friendship.

For the rest of their lives, each is obsessed with exposing the other's secrets, destroying the other's career, the other's life.

But Jackman, playing Angier with an oversize American accent, and Bale, doing Borden as a working-class Brit, get lost in the plot's multiple convolutions. Designed to keep the audience guessing until the very last twist, the story, instead, gets cinched in its own straightjacket of aren't-we-clever?-ness -- like an escape artist bound in chains and locked in a box, only to discover that he can't extricate himself from the trap.

Caine, as a foxy old "ingeneur" -- a designer of elaborate contraptions to aid in the magicians' deceptions -- putters around on the periphery, occasionally showing up to say, or do, something significant.

Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, has nothing to do but vamp cartoonishly in silly Victorian showgirl attire; the actress, whose self-parodic sexpot pouts and poses adorn the cover and inside pages of the current Esquire ("The Sexiest Woman Alive!"), is fast becoming a joke. In "The Prestige," she signs on as Angier's assistant, and lover, only to find herself shunted off to spy on Borden. Of course, she becomes his lover, too.

(And wasn't Johansson already a magician's assistant this summer -- in Woody Allen's "Scoop"? One magician's assistant per year per actress, I say.)

A side trip to the mountains of Colorado, where the famous (and real-life) inventor Nikola Tesla is working on his coils and constructs, is "The Prestige's" big piece of misdirection. David Bowie plays the scientist with a simmering mad energy, and Andy Serkis is his sycophantic sidekick. It is Angier who has come here, to learn the secrets behind "The Transported Man" machine that Tesla was said to have designed for arch-nemesis Borden.

There's a nifty shot of a mess of top hats strewn in the woods that may or may not be the key to what Tesla was up to. But the image, for all its poetry, doesn't explain what director Nolan was up to in "The Prestige," apart from some clunky cinematic sleight-of-hand.

___

THE PRESTIGE

2 stars

Produced by Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, photography by Wally Pfister, music by David Julyan, distributed by Touchstone Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie

Rating: PG-13 (violence, sex, adult themes)

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