As if we should believe him, Hugh Jackman’s character proclaims in “The Prestige” that magicians have a “circle of trust.” “The Prestige” takes that circle of trust and twists it into a Russian roulette, with Jackman betting on black and Bale on red, and both magicians playing the odds despite risk or consequence.
The film follows Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) as they duel for supremacy in 19th century England, constantly trying to top or steal each other’s tricks. They strain to impress their audiences but agonize, at the end of the day, over what the other magician thought of the show. It seems as simple as pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but having been crafted by Christopher and John Nolan (the team behind Memento), the plot is, likes its characters, a master of misdirection.
The men’s entire circle of friends, family and colleagues is affected by their contest, and even as an audience we don’t realize how far the “circle of trust” extends until we see we’ve got chips on the table, too. The ball pings from magician to magician, heavy with our emotional investment; it all seems like a game of chance until it becomes clear that, like everything else in the film, it’s rigged: the magicians are passing the audience’s trust around in the same way that they manipulate and manhandle the people close to them. The effect is feeling at once cheated and invigorated by the film’s refusal to play by the rules.
Just as with “Memento” and “Batman Begins” (also directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Bale), the film is heavy on style and concept (deliciously so), but also keenly focused on character and personal motive. Although it’s never quite clear why either man is so enchanted with magic, the rivalry is so believable and well acted that in the end the magic is just a vehicle to get to the characters (much as it is for the magicians themselves).
Surfacing just as “The Illusionist” is leaving theatres, it’s worth noting that the two films are very different. They’re both tales of top hats, trickery and trench coats, but similarities could end there. Those still debating what happpened in The Illusionist will find the explanations here more satisfying. Where The Illusionist impresses with the magic (a funny concept in the CGI age), “The Prestige” goes beyond it, showing the on-stage tricks from the beginning — essentially diverting attention to what the audience thought it wanted to see — while an entire other sequence plays out side stage.
Parents should know that the film is suspenseful and at times horrific. There are deaths involving hangings and drowning, and a suicide, and there are startling gunshot injuries in addition to other shocking “accidents.” The two characters spend much of the film sabotaging each other’s illusions, and the consequences are often appalling.
Families who see this film should discuss the themes of revenge and obsession. They might talk about what drives the magicians’ duel, and what types of sacrifices they make and whom they hurt in their attempts to get back at each other. At one point, Bale’s character professes a wish to end the rivalry. What did it take for that character to get to the point where too much had been lost? Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s assistant, Olivia Wenscombe, is also a complex character worth exploring. Why did she react the way she did to Angier’s request? In what ways did she succeed in maintaining dignity as a person? In what ways did she fail?
Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy Houdini starring Tony Curtis, or the 1998 made-for-television version. Adults and children interested in history of the supernatural might enjoy 1997’s FairyTale: A True Story based on the renowned “Cottingley Fairies” hoax committed by two young girls in England during the first World War. As the movie shows, the real-life Houdini was one of the first to say it was a fraud.