“Every great magic trick has three acts,” we’re told early on in “The Prestige.” Title is lingo for a stage stunt’s capper moment. Yet that’s precisely where Christopher Nolan’s plush period mystery goes from middling to messy. Tale of dueling magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, takes itself awfully seriously, yet might have ideally suited a 1938 programmer pitting Karloff against Lugosi. Combined high polish, so-so character involvement, and a confusing denouement won’t help this handsome production once word-of-mouth trumps alluring advance come-ons.
Pic will also suffer from being “the other” movie about 19th-century professional conjurers, though it’s very different from current “The Illusionist.” While that pic is essentially a romance, “The Prestige” focuses on the blood feud between American abroad Robert Angier (Jackman) and Cockney Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).
They’re introduced as “volunteers” picked from an English music hall audience to bind magician’s assistant Julia (Piper Perabo). Plunged into a water tank, she miraculously escapes.
In fact, the two young men are apprentice magicians, secretly a part of the act. Further, Julia is wife to personable Robert. He’s a natural showman, while taciturn Alfred is a more gifted illusionist.
But in the name of slick presentation, Alfred takes risks that don’t pass muster with safety-minded mentor Cutter (Michael Caine). One day, Alfred ties a more-difficult yoke — with Julia’s permission — that results in her being unable to free herself; she drowns before an ax can break the glass tank.
Robert is enraged and inconsolable, particularly when he spies Alfred with new wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and baby — the happy family he feels robbed of.
The men develop separate acts, with Robert’s successful while Alfred toils in dives. Nonetheless, Robert remains consumed by thoughts of vengeance. What starts out an exchange of petty humiliations turns into vicious, increasingly violent one-upmanship.
Seeing Alfred perform a stupendous act called “The Transported Man,” Robert vows to steal it. When he’s unable to figure it out himself, he dispatches onstage assistant and offstage lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to seduce the secret from his rival.
This central chronology is interspersed throughout with dual flash-forward threads. In one, Robert travels to Colorado Springs to petition reclusive inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to build a machine like the transport he supposedly built for Alfred.
In the other thread, Alfred stands trial for the death of Robert, whom we’ve seen drown just like his late wife.
While complicated intrigue might have fascinated in Christopher Priest’s novel, it tends to overwhelm Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s adaptation. Pic insists on a depth of human emotion that isn’t developed — protags emerge as one-dimensional, despite the efforts of two of our best leading actors — amid increasingly elaborate, uninvolving plot mechanizations.
Pic’s resolution suddenly admits to fantastical and hitherto-unsuspected elements. It’s a flame-out likely to send most viewers home perplexed.
Clearly, director Nolan is aiming for something else. But the delight in sheer gamesmanship that marked his breakout “Memento” doesn’t survive this project’s gimmickry and aspirations toward “Les Miserables”-style epic passion.
Jackman, a familiarly intense Bale, Caine, Johansson (good if risking overexposure these days), and others all hit notes previously played in better roles. On the other hand, perpetually undervalued as an actor Bowie brings an elegant, enlivening edge to Tesla, though that figure’s resonance as a real-life enigma will be lost on many.
Several of Nolan’s key “Batman Begins” collaborators return here, with Wally Pfister’s widescreen lensing, Nathan Crowley’s production design and Joan Bergin’s costumes the most notable contribs.