The Prestige
Newmarket Films
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG-13

There are a lot of ways movie critics are not like magicians. Our wardrobes are not nearly as classy, and I can’t remember the last time I sawed anything in half that did not have ham and/or cheese on it. Yet there’s one very important way that we are expected to be like magicians: Unless we are Michael Medved and claim we have a really, really good moral reason for doing so, we don’t give away secrets.

It’s an understood, unwritten code by which we abide, and it’s also a pain in the neck — for precisely the reason that it makes it so hard to explain why a movie like The Prestige is a disappointment. It requires a verbal slight-of-hand, showing you something that’s not there without showing you the thing that really is there.

In turn-of-the-century England, Arthur Borden (Christian Bale) is on trial for his life. He stands accused of murdering Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), with motives that become evident only in flashback. The two men were rival stage illusionists, their antagonism born from an incident in which Borden may have contributed to the accidental death of Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo). Over the final years of the 1890s, the two men vie for the greatest renown, each one developing variations on a trick called “The Transported Man” — but both must make sacrifices to achieve the truly amazing.

To the credit of director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) and his brother Jonathan, they pull off some pretty amazing tricks with their screenplay adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel. They work perhaps a bit too hard to bulk up the roles of Scarlett Johansson (as Angier’s stage assistant and lover) and Michael Caine (as Angier’s prop designer), but it’s impressive that they take a literary conceit and give it flesh and blood.

The Nolans’ achievement might have been worthy of unconditional applause, if not for a few horribly misguided decisions. It’s here that the analysis gets tricky, since they’re third-act problems — issues with how they choose to reveal the story’s secrets, and with the ultimate consequences of the characters’ actions. It’s the essence of whether a movie like this succeeds or fails, and by critical statute I’m forbidden from explaining exactly what they are.

Let’s begin here, then: One of the film’s major plot points is a revelation about the identity of one of the main characters. The Nolans could have chosen any number of ways to provide hints as to this ultimate revelation, but the manner they choose to build up to this revelation is monumentally wrong-headed. The Big Secret should be patently obvious to anyone who is paying even the slightest bit of attention — which would not necessarily have been fatal, had the film made it clear that the Big Reveal was not the point of it all.

Unfortunately, the Nolans take The Prestige in precisely the opposite direction. There was reason to hope that they wouldn’t make such a mistake, given the brilliance with which they handled the thematic significance of Memento‘s climactic twist. Instead, they fall into the same trap that doomed the sloppy The Illusionist: building everything around the assumption that the audience will be amazed and surprised by the Big Reveal, leaving little for those who watched with more than one eye half-open.

And it’s a shame in this case, because there’s such a foundation for The Prestige to work as a tragic morality tale about the fallout from a personal arms race. It’s hard to believe the Nolans really believe in the importance of that message when one character gets a happy ending that feels in no way deserved. So instead of resonance, we end up with the surface pleasures of a studio film worried about wasting the casting of Batman vs. Wolverine. Filmmakers who could have been proud if their audience felt moved seem content to be proud if their audience felt fooled. The Nolans can have their secrets — along with their apparent belief that the essence of movie magic is the same as the essence of stage magic.