×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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. 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.

With:
Robert Angier - Hugh Jackman Alfred Borden - Christian Bale Cutter - Michael Caine Julia - Piper Perabo Sarah - Rebecca Hall Olivia - Scarlett Johansson Jess - Samantha Mahurin Tesla - David Bowie Alley - Andy Serkis Judge - Daniel Davis Prosecutor - Jim Piddock Defender - Christopher Neame Captain - Mark Ryan Owens - Roger Rees

“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.

The Prestige

Production: A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Newmarket Films and Syncopy Production. Produced by Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder, Christopher Nolan. Executive producers, Charles J.D. Schlissel, Chris J. Ball, William Tyrer, Valerie Dean. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay, Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest.

Crew: Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Wally Pfister; editor, Lee Smith; music, David Julyan; production designer, Nathan Crowley; art director, Kevin Kavanaugh; set decorator, Julie Ochipinti; costume designer, Joan Bergin; sound (Dolby Digital), Richard King; magic advisors, Ricky Jay, Michael Weber; assistant directors, Alan B. Curtiss, Jody Spilkoman; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at Sony Metreon, San Francisco, Oct. 4, 2006. (In Rome Film Festival.) MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 130 MIN.

With: Robert Angier - Hugh Jackman Alfred Borden - Christian Bale Cutter - Michael Caine Julia - Piper Perabo Sarah - Rebecca Hall Olivia - Scarlett Johansson Jess - Samantha Mahurin Tesla - David Bowie Alley - Andy Serkis Judge - Daniel Davis Prosecutor - Jim Piddock Defender - Christopher Neame Captain - Mark Ryan Owens - Roger Rees

More Film

  • Bradley Cooper speaks at the 30th

    Producers Guild Shifts 2020 Awards Show to Hollywood Palladium

    The Producers Guild of America will hold its 31st Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, shifting the site from the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The PGA had already announced that the show would take place on Jan. 18. The organization, which represents more than 8,000 producers, announced Thursday that it has launched a new [...]

  • Adam Driver appears in The Report

    Amazon’s ‘The Report’ Gets U.K. Theatrical Release Ahead of Streaming Launch

    Amazon Studio’s “The Report” will be released theatrically in the U.K. three weeks before it lands on the Prime Video streaming service. The Scott Z. Burns film tells the story of Daniel J. Jones, a U.S. Senate staffer who worked to reveal that truth about an “enhanced interrogation” program run by the CIA in the [...]

  • Elton John performing at Earls Court,

    Elton John Has a Message for Struggling LGBTQ Youth: 'Be Proud of Who You Are'

    Elton John isn’t at a loss for words when asked if he has a message for young LGBTQ people who are struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. In an exclusive interview with Variety at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, just hours before the world premiere of his long-in-the-works biopic “Rocketman,” John spoke candidly about the [...]

  • Salma Hayek Owen Wilson Bliss

    Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson to Star in Amazon's Sci-Fi Drama 'Bliss'

    Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson have signed on to star in Amazon’s science-fiction drama “Bliss,” with Mike Cahill directing from his own script. Wilson portrays a recently divorced man whose life is falling apart when he meets Hayek’s character, a woman who lives on the streets and is convinced that the polluted, broken world around [...]

  • Donald Glover Beyonce

    Beyoncé and Donald Glover Harmonize in 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' Ad Preview

    Anyone who’s longed to hear Beyoncé and Donald Glover harmonizing got just enough to further whet the appetite in a first snippet of their version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that’s included in a new commercial for Disney’s upcoming “Lion King” remake. The TV spot lasts just 30 seconds, hardly time at all [...]

  • Pride Allies

    The Hollywood Allies Who Helped Protect, Advance the LGBTQ Community This Year

    Strong and proud as it is, the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality needs allies — from loving and accepting families to galvanized colleagues and corporations to the movie star you’ve never met calling for boycotts of a homophobic nation-state. Several of those queer supporters in Hollywood and music used the megaphones of social media, public [...]

  • 'Easy A' Spinoff in the Works

    'Easy A' Spinoff in the Works From Original Screenwriter (EXCLUSIVE)

    Nearly a decade after the success of “Easy A,” a spinoff of the coming-of-age comedy is in the works. Sources tell Variety that Screen Gems has appointed Bert Royal, who penned the first script, to write and direct the upcoming movie. Insiders stress that the film is still in early development, as Royal is still [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content