Macabre magic mystifies

As the second film of the season based on the travails of magicians, The Prestige is perilously perched on the fence between success and failure. Compounding this peril is the relative critical success of its rival, The Illusionist.

However, The Prestige stands on its own, as it quickly becomes apparent that magic is the only basis for comparison.

The scene is set in turn-of-the-century London as two rival magicians compete for the hearts of their audiences while scheming to undermine each other.

Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) start the film as apprentices to the same magician. Their relationship is never friendly and can only be described as an antagonistic acquaintance.

Their relationship soon deteriorates, however, when an on-stage accident for which Borden is partly responsible results in the death of Angier’s wife. Revenge and obsession become the canvas on which the characters are painted from this point on as Angier silently vows revenge.

Both Bale and Jackman offer stunning performances in a film that could easily lend itself to overacting. The subtle nuances of both performances send the sympathies of the audience bouncing back and forth between the pitted foes like a pinball, careening off the screen and into the patrons’ chests.

Christopher Nolan (who directed Momento) again employs the use of non-linear time masterfully to augment and form these sympathies while keeping the audience off-balance. The movie has been criticized for dragging toward the end, but the plot – rather than being driven by action or characterization – becomes driven by the ever-enigmatic question, “How did he do that?”

Nolan doesn’t rely on a magical M. Night Shyamalan twist to answer the question, instead offering the audience a number of clues and leaving time for viewers to make up their minds before revealing the answer.

The trip toward the answer brings Angier to Colorado Springs to employ the help of Dr. Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Bowie lacks the purple bulge of Labyrinth fame, but proffers a surprisingly good performance nonetheless. His accent is believable and the melancholy demeanor he exudes is tangible. His performance is so convincing that it’s hard to recognize him as Bowie. Even after the connection is made, it fades away, leaving only Tesla.

The always stunning Scarlett Johansson offers an equally convincing performance as Olivia Wenscombe, the assistant and temporary love interest of both magicians. She becomes the gracefully vulnerable Wenscombe while maintaining an air of detached savvy.

In contrast to The Illusionist, love takes a backseat to obsession in this film.

Angier and Borden forsake everything in the pursuit of the perfect magic trick and revenge on each other. They are maniacal in their desires, sacrificing all they care about for fame and vengeance.

As the story unfolds on screen, they are chased through a Victorian world of Jules Verne-esque science and perfectly constructed sets. The same dark vision Nolan employed to revamp the dying Batman series is used in The Prestige to both set the backdrop for the macabre story and to put the viewer just slightly off-kilter.

Carried on the backs of convincing performances and beautifully dark set designs, The Prestige successfully navigates a saturated movie market to set itself apart as an unconventional thriller.