The film is based loosely on a novel by Christopher Priest set at the turn of the century. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, a Welshman working with an English accent) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, an Australian working with an American accent) begin as fellow apprentices to the same stage magician in London (Ricky Jay, of course). Their friendship turns to burning hate when one of their boss’ tricks goes wrong, and his assistant (Piper Perabo) — who is also Angier’s wife — dies horribly onstage, possibly but possibly not because of Borden’s faulty preparations. Somehow recovering from this professional catastrophe, they separately establish their own reputations as brilliant prestidigitators, but their rivalry and history spur them to sabotage each other’s acts to the point that each deals crippling injuries to the other.
These main characters are a pair of obsessive, vindictive perfectionists, and while these actors might have made at least one of them sympathetic enough to invest in, neither Bale nor Jackman hits his role with anything like his best. In fact, none of the major players in this starry cast does, not Caine as a stage engineer, not Scarlett Johansson (whose English accent flickers on and off) as a magician’s assistant. These supporting characters, pulled into the illusionists’ feud, are fatally ill-defined. Upstaging everyone else in the cast is David Bowie (!), who’s credibly aristocratic and scruffy as the real-life Serbian scientist in exile Nikola Tesla.
Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan reunites professionally with his brother and co-writer Jonathan, with whom he collaborated on his breakout Memento. They treat this script as a huge exercise in misdirection. Each magician keeps a diary that falls into the possession of the other, and the act of reading them gives rise to a flashback structure that’s like a Chinese box, only we don’t know which story contains the other, and at least one diary turns out to be fake. Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister do nice work generating brooding tension and period atmosphere. You could have a fine time just watching the way the filmmakers handle the light here, whether it’s by candle, torch, lantern, gas, or electricity, especially the bolts emanating from a huge Tesla coil.
Yet the movie falls flat at the payoff, exactly when it needs to be at its best. The big reveal is how Angier pulls off his trick of appearing to be — or perhaps actually being — in two places at once, and what’s supposed to be a mind-blowing final touch turns out to be a cheesy and undercooked twist that wouldn’t pass muster in an average episode of Lost. How bitterly ironic that The Prestige should falter just when it gets to the prestige.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, based on Christopher Priest’s novel. Rated PG-13.