You hear the phrase "movie magic" bandied about a lot, but as an actual subject for a movie, magic — stage magic, that is — leaves a lot to be desired. Most magic tricks depend on misdirection, and that particular sleight-of-hand comes far too naturally to the camera, which can manipulate the audience's gaze at will; every cut is suspect, so that the illusion, no matter how compelling, winds up devoid of charm. Nonetheless, The Prestige, adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, is the second film involving turn-of-the-century prestidigitators to hit multiplexes since August. Neither amounts to much more than a mild diversion, but unlike The Illusionist, with its patently transparent twist, The Prestige does at least keep you guessing.
It's got a better plot, too, though director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) does his best to obscure it via needless chronological hocus-pocus. (I haven't read the book, so it's possible the haphazard structure derives from Priest; given Nolan's track record, though, I frankly doubt it.) Two aspiring magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), initially friends and partners, wind up as bitter rivals following a tragic onstage mishap. When Borden unveils an astonishing, seemingly impossible new illusion, The Transported Man, Angier vows to steal the secret, sending his assistant and lover (Scarlett Johansson) over to the enemy camp as a spy. How this petty intrigue leads to one man watching the other drown in a water tank — the opening scene — I leave for you to discover.
Scene by scene, The Prestige definitely holds your attention, thanks to vigorous performances by the ensemble (which also includes Michael Caine as a master craftsman) and the escalating intensity of Angier and Borden's blood feud, which plays like Tin Men minus the laughs. But the film has two major problems, neither of which I can do much more than hint at without ruining various surprises. One key element, let's just say, probably worked better in the book, where certain. . . things can be described rather than shown. (Nolan almost kills himself trying to be casual about it, but that only heightens your suspicion.) And while it's always a pleasure to see David Bowie, who at this point is a better actor than musician, Priest's incorporation of real-life inventor Nikola Tesla into his scenario unwisely pushes it into the realm of science-fiction, a genre that's pretty much antithetical to the spirit of magic. Cutting a lady in half doesn't mean a whole lot if there's a surgical team standing by to stitch her back together. — Mike D'Angelo