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The Art of Deception

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Two magicians command the open stage. One is a genius, a man of invention. The other is a showman, a man of ambition. Neither dwells on his own talents. Rather, each obsesses over the merits of the other. Their lives bear the brunt of their rivalry as they tear themselves apart.

Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, “The Prestige,” is one that thrives on the cardinal sins of its two intoxicatingly dark leads. Pride, greed, lust, envy and wrath – they’re all here. There is no warm epicenter to this picture, no tale of ultimate redemption. Instead the darkness extends all the way through, to a beating heart that drips melancholy.

Nolan’s tale introduces Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a pair of talented and passionate young magicians in London at the turn of the 19th century. Under the shared tutelage of Cutter (Michael Caine), a designer of illusions, the two begin as admiring friends in search of the next great magic show. Angier is the consummate showman, an average magician who elevates his craft by dazzling audiences with his stage presence. Borden is the devoted inventor, bent on inventing a wholly original trick that’s never been seen before.

But when a magic demonstration goes awry and costs the life of Angier’s wife, the pair’s ties are sawn in two. Jealousy and rage cloud their minds as they seek to upend each other in the frenzied journey toward achieving magical supremacy. No individual success is enough for either magician without the destruction of their rival.

The promotional material for “The Prestige” tantalizes the audience’s expectations with a very simple question. “Are you watching closely?” The filmmakers thumb this expectation in the faces of their viewers. Can you crack the film’s intricate riddle? Look past the veiled exterior to the heart of the conflict?

For their part, Nolan and his crew have done their part in making sure you can’t. Herein lies the film’s most satisfying – and equally frustrating – quality. Designed as a cinematic sleight of hand, its unpredictability is beguiling and intoxicating. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether Angier or Borden win their fateful duel. Their innocence is shattered in the very first act of the film.

All that’s left is the compulsive race towards an obscure finish line as each subsequent scene further damages each character. This mutual downward spiral is wrenching, especially when considering that these two could have ruled the world of magic with their combined talents. Instead of focusing their respective talents into a near-perfect union, Angier and Borden arrogantly stick their chins in the air, begging the other to take the next shot and inflict a deeper wound.

A film such as this travels only as far as its enchanting leads can take it. Fortunately for all, “The Prestige” is blessed with an overabundance of acting talent pooled under the guidance of a focused director. Neither Bale nor Jackman are here to win the audience’s hearts. Their characters become so vicious so quickly that, by film’s end, it’s hard to remember a time when the two weren’t at each other’s throats. Amidst their characters’ increasing ferocity, both Jackman and Bale find new reservoirs of sadness and rage to ratchet the film’s stakes to near-unbearable highs.

Both men have eclipsed their artistic peers in past films while emerging as two of the most talented actors of their generation. “The Prestige” is as much an exercise in absorbing their acting bravado as it is a tale of revenge. Neither cedes an inch to the other, which does nothing but aid the film’s twists and turns.

Just as in “Batman Begins,” his previous mainstream effort, Nolan has surrounded his two leads with a diversely talented ensemble with nary a weak link. The venerable Caine imbues his character with a quiet warmth and regality, the same qualities he has perfected in his roles over the past decade. His character is pained by the knowledge that he can’t stop the ultimate fates of his two protégés, despite his best efforts.

Similarly, Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall turn in deeply affecting performances as the wives of the two rivals. Their lives are tainted by tragedy, the most direct manifestation of the vengeful actions of their beaus. Meanwhile, the actor with the most thankless task is Scarlett Johansson, who displays a fiery passion as Olivia, an enthralling stage assistant with increasingly shrouded motivations who is ferried from one magician’s camp to the other.

Beatifully shot and edited, the artful “Prestige” is one of those rare period pieces that transcends its genre. Few films dare audiences to choose sides between protagonists as flawed as the ones that dominate “The Prestige.” Even fewer succeed in spite of these gaping character flaws.

Despite these odds, “The Prestige” offers a remarkable, harrowing trip through the psyches of two immensely talented men, each tortured and crippled by their nightmarish fears and their dark obsessions.