That two movies about magicians at the turn of the 20th-century should appear within months of each other seems most unusual; just the sort of phenomenon that, as they say, could only happen in Hollywood. The appearance of The Prestige so soon after The Illusionist, however, does not imply the familiar copycat methods of the film industry; it simply requires far too much money, labor, and time to make a movie, even a plagiarized movie. Perhaps a shared backward glance at the turn of the previous century turns up an interest in many manifestations of the allegedly supernatural --- mesmerism, spiritualism, seances, and a whole tent full of religious revivals --- that are entirely appropriate to our own experience of the recent millennium.
In keeping with the tenor of its time, The Prestige employs the art of magic not only as a major subject, but also as the background for the exploration of a number of characteristic late 19th-century concepts. Many of its elements, large and small, display the curious combinations of science, technology, and the supernatural that apparently attracted the interest of a number of important thinkers and artists. Writers as different as H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, and James M. Barrie, for example, demonstrate the era's peculiar fascination with the occult and mysterious.
In The Prestige two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Burden (Christian Bale), initially friends and colleagues, become mortal enemies when Burden carelessly causes the death of Angier's wife. Their art both divides them and provides them with weapons, as they steal each other's tricks and sabotage each other's performances. Burden's most successful illusion, the Transported Man, so intrigues Angier that his efforts to duplicate it ultimately lead him to America to consult the famous inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whose own brand of scientific magic leads to the solution to the movie's complicated, interlocking puzzles.
Multiple voice-over narrations accompany much of the action, accomplishing the rare feat of emphasizing rather than simplifying the complexity of the film's structure. Michael Caine as the engineer who designs and operates much of the magicians' apparatus provides some of the explanation, while the two antagonists read each other's notes and journals on the soundtrack, revealing the secrets of their separate methods and at the same time tricking and taunting their counterparts.
Their art also underlines the contrasts between the two men and suggests some of the significant duality that pervades both the historical period and the movie itself. The tension between the possibility of belief in the supernatural, the romantic, the magical, and the awareness of the real, the rational, the scientific energizes a good deal of the literature of the time --- the Sherlock Holmes stories, the early science fiction novels, Dracula --- and in The Prestige continually appears in the spoken desire to find or create "real magic." The different methods of performance, even with the same tricks, and the obvious class distinctions (Angier is an aristocrat, while Burden's accent defines him as lower class) underline the contrasts between the two men and paradoxically establish the astonishing final revelations, drawn from the period's persistent fascination with mirror images, doubles, and duplicates.
The movie also suggests those dualities in some offhand images, like the juxtaposition of a horse and carriage with an early automobile and the night view of a Colorado town illuminated, in an age of gaslight, by Tesla's alternating current. The ambiguous ending, the final resolution of its mysteries, equally combines the magical and the technological, explaining its miracles while also displaying an incredible effect of science that apparently results in something very like the supernatural.
The dark lighting and general drabness of the sets, though possibly appropriate to the period, tend to diminish a necessary sense of wonder. The slow pace, the needless repetition of action and dialogue, and the consistently uninspired acting also rob the film of energy, so that the characters possess little inherent interest and their grand tricks lose much of their potential to astonish. The successes of The Prestige, however, generally triumph over the flaws, even if the director seems ignorant of the power of his subjects and themes.
The Prestige (PG-13), directed by Christopher Nolan, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.