THE PRESTIGE begins with a gentle old man's voice, telling us of the three stages of the magic act.
There is the Pledge: the magician shows you something ordinary. He wants you to be sure there is nothing out of the ordinary with what you see.
Then the second act, The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary, and makes it do something extraordinary. Like making it disappear.
But you won't clap yet because doing something extraordinary isn't enough. It's not enough unless the woman sawed in half returns in one piece. That is what the magician calls The Prestige.
The trick of this opening narrative is that it isn't hokey narration at all. It's an old man telling an attentive little girl how a magic act works. But he won't reveal how the actual trick works. Because, as he says, "You want to be fooled."
The voice we hear, the man walking her through the stages of an act, is Cutter (Michael Caine: BATMAN BEGINS, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION). The Prestige for us is that the disguised opening narration was the story itself, and Cutter talking to us through the child, instead of breaking the fourth wall.
This audio/visual sleight of hand: This leading the audience through its expectations, only to produce the unexpected, permeates THE PRESTIGE in a rewarding way.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman: XMEN (all), VAN HELSING, DECEPTION) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale: AMERICAN PSYCHO, REIGN OF FIRE, EQUILIBRIUM, BATMAN BEGINS,THE DARK KNIGHT, TERMINATOR: SALVATION) are two men who aren't friends so much as colleagues in the art of performance magic. They've been brought together by Cutter, who is a solid magician in his own right, but is a better ingenieur: a designer of illusions who constructs the apparatus that performs them.
Cutter admires Robert Angier for being a proper showman. He respects Borden for being a natural born magician. In the best of all worlds, he could get the two men to come together and meld their two distinct talents into one incredible act. But Angier, who knows Borden is the better magician, sneers at Alfred's awkward stage presence. And Borden, who knows Robert is the better showman, belittles Angier's transparent magic act.
Alfred feels he doesn't need Robert's stage presence, as his mystifying trickery carries the day - impressing even other magicians.
Robert knows his showmanship attracts a larger, better paying audience, but he also knows his magic act is a shadow of what Alfred can do.
So Robert plays to the big crowds and Alfred supplements his income playing assistant to other lesser magicians. In the realm of early 20th Century England, showmanship trumps talent in attracting an audience.
So Robert shouldn't care about the struggling Alfred's talent. After all, he has his fiance and assistant, Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo: THE CAVE, THE LAZARUS PROJECT, SORDID THINGS, CARRIERS), to consider. Their future as husband and wife, and the family that will surely come should be foremost in his goals.
That should be what matters and Robert wants that to be what matters. But he can't ignore his consuming professional jealousy. Despite the approval of his audience, the money and the fame, he knows there is one man in the city that the truly discerning audience takes seriously. What's even worse, his own mentor and friend, Cutter, knows Alfred is the better magician too.
While Cutter encourages Robert to pursue his charming talents, Robert tries hard to be a better magician. But for all of his hard work and constant practice, he only has to see one of Alfred's shows to witness a stunning trick the likes of which even he cannot fathom. Worse for Robert is while he watches Alfred's show, trying to figure out the trick and steal it, Alfred who sees right through Robert's tricks, is practicing his showmanship from watching Robert act, and little by little is improving his own.
So under Cutter's wing, the two men work together, watching each other, sometimes Alfred works as Robert's assistant, even while they circle the other.
Then tragedy strikes during an on stage act, resulting in the death of Julia and the possible responsibility of Alfred for improperly tying the ropes that bound her hands. There was a right "trick" way to tie the knot, which would have resulted in an easy escape, and a wrong way, which would result in death. In Julia's panic, she twisted the ropes to the point where it is impossible to tell if they were tied right or wrong. In his loss and outrage Robert demands of Alfred, "Did you tie the knot under or over?"
Stunned and wracked with confusion and guilt in the moment, Alfred rethinks and over thinks, until at last he can only say, "I don't know."
Over time Alfred makes every attempt to beg forgiveness from Robert, but Robert can't wipe away the idea that Alfred's act was intentional. How could he not remember how he tied the knot? If only Alfred would either own up to his mistake or be certain that the problem was Julia's panic, Robert could find closure. But how can Alfred Not Know?
Over time, the moderately successful Alfred falls in love with Sarah (Rebecca Hall: DORIAN GRAY, THE AWAKENING) and marries. The wildly successful Robert is adored by his new assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson: EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, THE ISLAND, THE SPIRIT, IRON MAN 2), but jealously watches Alfred's smaller life bloom and is outraged by any minor success the man has.
Even after Robert maims Alfred in a way which should have ended Alfred's career, Alfred continues his act. Borden continues to work, to be better, and while he still isn't the showman that Robert is, he continues to garner his small though significant success. Finally, Alfred's act does what Robert always feared: Borden draws Angier's audience away. His latest magic act is so far beyond Robert's ability to understand that Angier and Olivia can't even explain it to Cutter. Alfred Borden, killer of Robert Angier's love and heart, is surpassing him.
Cutter recognizes that Robert's passion and ambition, jealousy, resentment, and heartache, have spawned a cancerous obsession in Angier, and the old man wants no part of it.
One night after a secret invitation, an eerie demonstration by the mysterious Alley (Andy Serkis: THE LORD OF THE RINGS [all], DEATHWATCH, KING KONG, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) convinces Angier to abandon his failing act in England and journey to the U.S. There he finds the famous and secretive inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie: THE HUNGER, LABYRINTH, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, THE HUNGER [TV]).
As a brilliant scientist, Nikola is inventor and showman, Thomas Edison's Alfred Borden. But Robert is blind to that. Robert, who despises the fact that Alfred Borden needs no one but himself to create magic tricks, finds himself still relying on others to make his tricks work. But if he can show up Borden that's all that matters. Robert has the money to pay Tesla to build a thing that no magician will ever top.
And with that we reach the second act. The Trick. I won't tell you the trick, but I will tell you that watching THE PRESTIGE feels like a gift Co-Writer and Director Christopher Nolan (MEMENTO, BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION) intended for his audience. Not "the" audience, but his specific audience who have grown to delight in his manner of storytelling. THE PRESTIGE is Nolan's gift to us, that's how it felt to me. Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, THE PRESTIGE is adapted by both Jonathon Nolan (MEMENTO, THE DARK KNIGHT) as well as his brother Christopher. Together they guide us through the darkest most clockwork intricacies of story.
THE PRESTIGE is an awesome tale that turns, twists, and like all Nolan movies, buries clues and secrets in every single scene, enticing us to watch over and over to uncover the tales within the tale.
And no mistake, there is the surface story of THE PRESTIGE and the deeper story.
Would Nolan actually go so far as to tell this story like a magic act? Will the end itself be the Viola!: The Prestige to the movie?
It's pointless to tell you because like every magic act, the secret impresses no one. You want to be entertained. You want to be tricked. You don't really want me to tell you.
So instead I'll tell you this:
Four Shriek Girls.
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