Imagine watching a magician whose sleight of hand dazzles without ever filling a viewer with a sense of wonder, and you get a sense of what it is like to sit through Christopher Nolan’s well-mounted but curiously unengaging adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel “The Prestige.”The elements are all there: a terrific cast, an appropriately jolting surprise ending, an impressive period production and a proven director. “The Pestige” runs into trouble because it’s about a rivalry between two nineteenth century illusionists that doesn’t leave a viewer eager to choose a winner or even caring if one comes out on top.
The film begins with magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) accused of murdering fellow practioner Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). The case seems open and shut because Angier had long blamed Borden for the death of his wife (Piper Perabo) when all three were serving as apprentices to a veteran (Ricky Jay).
Afterward, each goes to great lengths to subvert the other. One might show up at another’s performance and ruin a trick, or will find a way to wreck the other’s personal life. Angier even sends his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) to work for Borden in the hope of learning his best illusions.
Because Angier and Borden are willing to devote themselves to duplicity and murder to outdo each other, it’s hard to care how the conflict will eventually play out. The audience figures out long before the characters that achieving the ruin of a rival and the ultimate magic trick are not worth Faustian sacrifices.
Nolan’s skewed chronology makes the tale unfold like a puzzle. But the process of reaching the solution is much more rewarding than the story itself.
The cast members seem constrained with often maddeningly limited roles. Johansson is called on to do little more than look fetching in stage outfits, and Andy Serkis (“King Kong”) is grossly overqualified to be playing a glorified sidekick.
Sir Michael Caine has some fine moments as an engineer who helps design some of Borden and Angier’s tricks, and singer David Bowie is appropriately haunted as legendary inventor Nikola Tesla, who seems to draw little joy from his considerable achievements. Rebecca Hall is touching as Borden’s frustrated wife, but it’s odd that the supporting characters are more interesting than the main ones.
To their credit, Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who teamed up on the script to their earlier film “Memento”) do wrap things up impressively. The ending is both surprising but yet matches all the information the two have presented before.The intriguing conclusion almost absolves what comes before it. As much as I was put off by what preceded it, the ending did resonate long after I headed to the parking lot, and “The Prestige” is one of those weird movies that plays better in memory than it does on the screen.