I hesitate a bit to call The Prestige a magical movie (enchanting? mesmerizing? spellbinding?) but it really is. Loaded with a skillful cast, this story of performance, magic and obsession is just outstanding.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th) stage magicians. Originally working together on a show managed by Cutter (Michael Caine), their professional relationship is irreparably shattered when Angier's wife (played inconsequentially by Piper Perabo), a lovely magician's assistant, drowns during a water tank trick when she can't slip the knots tied by Borden.
The two men become competitors and rivals: working class Borden is the superior magician but the sophisticated Angier is a far better showman. His grief over his lost wife soon morphs into a dangerous obsession with Borden, however, especially as the other man finds himself a wife, has a family and begins performing the greatest trick ever seen: "the Transported Man." This trick has the magician enter one wooden box and then exit from another box twenty-five feet away. Angier is sure that Borden is using a double to pull it off, but Borden has a distinctive characteristic that is nearly impossible to fake - two of his fingers have been shot off - and the presumed "double" is also missing those exact fingers. Angier can't figure it out and it just about makes him crazy.
The movie's narrative flow jumps back and forth, requiring focus from the viewer: the story is sometimes told from Cutter's reminiscences and testimony at Borden's trial for Angier's murder, from Borden's reading of Angier's diary while sitting in jail awaiting his sentence, and from Angier's reading of Borden's stolen journal. We follow Angier on his quest to decipher Borden's trick and we watch Borden trying to reconcile his performance life with his domestic one. Each magician has his own secrets and his own obsessions. I managed to figure out the twist to Angier's story but missed Borden's simpler secret entirely - a classic case of misdirection by the movie's director, Christopher Nolan (who also directed Bale and Caine in Batman Begins).
Bale, Jackman and Caine are fantastic, of course. David Bowie does a nice, understated job as Nikola Tesla (the electricity guy) and Andy Serkis (Gollum from LoTR and King Kong from 2005's King Kong) is engaging - and nice to see without makeup. Rebecca Hall (most recently reviewed here as Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea) is quite good as Borden's struggling wife. But will someone please tell me why it was necessary to cast insipid American actresses as the lovely assistants? Surely there were pretty blonde English actresses (who wouldn't have struggled with the English accents) available - Scarlett Johansson as lovely assistant Olivia really didn't contribute much more than those marvelous breasts of hers.
I remember that when The Prestige came out in 2006 there was another period magician movie released at the same time (The Illusionist starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti) and the internets were full of people pitting the two movies against each - this one's better! that one's better! Now I'm going to have to move The Illusionist up my movie queue to see for myself. It's definitely going to have to work for it - The Prestige has set the bar high.
21 minutes ago