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Stephen Vaughn/Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures
Hugh Jackman in "The Prestige."
For years, movie magic was in short supply. The past three months, however, have brought three films, one comedy and two dramas, about magicians.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale.
Director: Christian Nolan.
Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.
Web site: theprestige.movies.go.com/
Woody Allen played a cheesy vaudevillian in "Scoop." Edward Norton was "The Illusionist," a mysterious man who seemed to commune with the dead.
Now, "The Prestige" trumps them with a pair of rival magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and an experienced elder, Michael Caine, who designs illusions. Any one of those actors is worth watching; combine the three and you have synergistic sizzle.
"The Prestige," from co-writer and director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Batman Begins"), has enough secrets and spoilers for a miniseries, and it's hard to write about a movie that is itself like a magic trick. While you're looking here, it's executing a trick there, and the film is, in fact, structured like a magic act with three parts called the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige.
In the first, the magician shows the audience something ordinary. In the second, he makes the ordinary do something extraordinary. The third brings the payoff and, in this case, the movie's title and name of the 1995 Christopher Priest source novel.
"The Prestige" is set mainly in London at the turn of the 20th century, when magicians were like rock stars, nightly filling large auditoriums.
At the heart of the story is the increasingly bitter feud between two illusionists: Alfred Borden (Bale), a creative genius whose stage skills leave something to be desired, and Robert Angier (Jackman), a magician who makes up for his shortcomings with razzle-dazzle.
When a trick involving the two goes awry, the men turn into enemies and spend years trying to outwit, outlast and outlive the other. Caught in the orbit of this obsession are the women in the magicians' lives, played by Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo.
The Borden-Angier rivalry bumps into another competition of its time, this one between inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and Thomas Edison. They, of course, play with arcs of electrical current, not birds that disappear on command, and they're responsible for a whole other sort of wizardry that touches people's lives.
"The Prestige" is built upon the premise that movie audiences, like those watching a magic act, want to be fooled. And they probably will be, even as they play sleight-of-hand sleuth and try to figure out what's going on (one twist left me baffled, so I went in search of the book.) That's my only knock against the movie -- that it doesn't make one very important turn more evident.
With its rich, burnished look and Victorian-era backdrops, it's a handsome movie with stars of such stature and talent that they feel like equal rivals. There are enough measures of revenge, pathos and surprise to hold your interest, not to mention its behind-the-scenes look at how someone can "catch" a speeding bullet or appear to walk in one door on the stage and then reappear through another yards away.
Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the screenplay with his brother, accurately says in the movie's notes that magic audiences know they're watching tricks (no one wants a woman to really be sawed in half) and yet they want to be fooled.
"The real world is rigid, there's not a lot of mystery in it, but people don't want that to be the case -- and that's where magic comes in. If we've got all the rules figured out and this is the way the world works, where you get a job, save your money and then die -- well, who wants to live in that world? I think we all would prefer that the universe have some surprises, some tricks up its sleeve."
Or at least a clever, 135-minute diversion.
First Published October 20, 2006 12:00 am