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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE PRESTIGE (article first published : 2007-02-5)

Magic acts, we are told at the beginning of this new film, have three stages. The first is "the pledge", in which audiences are shown something ordinary. The second is "the turn", when the magician does something special with what was ordinary.

The third stage is "the prestige", the grand finale, the reveal and effect, which sparks the gasps and applause.

Reunited with his Batman Returns stars, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, talented director Christopher Nolan sticks close to the magic-act formula in waving his wand over a story he and his brother, Jonathan, have conjured into a screenplay from a book by Christopher Priest.

And in so doing he has followed a narrative sleight-of-hand similar to that which he and his sibling favoured in another of their collaborations, the excellent 2000 film, Memento - moulding their tale within layers of flashbacks.Also featuring an icy David Bowie, as a reclusive electrical pioneer with a dodgy accent, and Scarlett Johansson, as an English-accented magician's assistant and lover, The Prestige is a puff of hocus pocus centred on magic, murder and mystery.

A story of rivalry and revenge, secrets and sabotage, it opens with magician Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) doing a disappearing act, amid frenzied crackles of blue stage lighting, in a theatre in Victorian London.

Another magician, his longtime rival Alfred Borden (Bale), a better magician than the smug Angier but not as good a showman, then pushes his way backstage and under the stage. There he is found, minutes later, watching as Angier drowns in a glass tank from which he is unable to escape.

Borden is charged with murder and, while in jail, is given Angier's diary to read. This sends the story backwards and forwards in time to reveal a disintegrating friendship that becomes a lifelong feud, fired by constant battles for supremacy in a shared profession.

Angier and Borden, we learn, were once pals and prodigies of a noted creator of magic tricks, Cutter (Caine, on good form). However, following a tragic stage performance together, the friendship soured and spawned a bitter rivalry which had Angier and Borden constantly trying to outdo one another as their success and fame on London stages grew. Both became obsessed with discovering each other's secrets - to the point of sabotaging one another's performances, with increasingly deadly effect.

Nolan has crafted an evocative, unconventional and absorbing film, and has drawn good performances from his cast, most notably Bale, using his English accent again, as the complex and intense Borden. But The Prestige disappoints with its own "prestige" - the "surprise" ending, sadly, is easily guessed, being well signposted throughout.

Deduct points, too, for a two-hour-and-a-bit running time that seems unnecessarily long. Too much screen time goes to sequences involving the magicians donning disguises in bids to be invited on stage by each other, with the intention of trying to ruin performances and reputations. Rating: 7/10 - Billy Suter




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