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Film review

Dazzled but dazed

Like magic itself, The Prestige relies on a deceptively brilliant surface to deflect attention from the action.

Published October 19, 2006

In the prologue of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams wrote that the stage magician offers illusion in the guise of truth, while the dramatist offers truth in the comfortable guise of illusion.

In The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay, twist that formula into knots.

Their tale of murder and intrigue among London magicians, circa 1900, explores the truth and the trickery that drive the characters and their art. The distinction between reality and illusion blurs and shifts, for the magicians, the writers and the audience.

For quite a while, the effect is indeed magical. We're riveted as the plot turns around on itself, and what seemed true turns out to be illusory. We think we're one step ahead of the writers and the characters, only to find that they deliberately and craftily sent us ahead so that we would fall into a clever little trap.

Stunning performances, beautiful photography and effects, and the chance to glimpse a little-known underworld all make for a dark but invigorating journey.

For the first hour.

After that, the Nolans (who also gave us Memento) merely confuse us and never bother to sufficiently enlighten us. The Prestige becomes so confounding that we stop caring.

It's a bit like taking a meandering walk around a strange city. At first, there's a new delight around every corner. Every turn brings new sights and the potential to encounter interesting new people and adventures.

But after a while you realize you're hopelessly lost. You just want to get out.

The plot revolves around rival magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), both obsessed with one particular trick, in which a man disappears and instantaneously reappears some distance away.

In a very early scene, we see Jackman killed while performing the trick, and Bale is convicted of his murder. We then go back and forth in time (and then farther back and farther forth so often that we're never sure exactly where we are) to unravel the events leading up to the murder.

(The title, incidentally, refers to the payoff of a magic trick - not the part where the woman gets sawed in half, but the moment when she rises unscathed.)

There are doppelgangers and double-crossers, spies and counterspies, romance and marital strife. There's a trip to Colorado, where Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie in mesmerizing, menacing fashion) builds a Star Trek-style transporter that can turn the trick into reality.

It's not as much fun as it sounds, or at least it isn't after the first hour.

It's a dreadful waste of a whole lot of talent. In addition to the fine performances of Bale, Jackman and Bowie, there's yet another great one by Michael Caine, and a solid but small turn for Scarlett Johansson. The costuming, the scenery and the effects are all phenomenal.

But it's all wrapping, with no gift inside. The brothers Nolan take a whole lot of gorgeous threads and tangle them into a huge multicolored mess. They seem to think that's the same as weaving a tapestry.


The Prestige

Grade: C-

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenplay: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, from a novel by Christopher Priest

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, David Bowie, Scarlett Johansson

Rating: PG-13; violence and disturbing images

Running time: 130 min.

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 10:33:25]

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