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Prestige, The Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007

Image The public loves magic. Nearly everyone, at least in public schools, can look back on their younger years and remember when the magician played the schools. The kids went nuts getting ready for the big day, then spent the rest of the day and maybe the rest of the week trying to figure out how all the tricks were done.

That same love and curiosity continued into adulthood, which is why so many audiences are attracted to street magicians like David Blane, cold readers like John Edwards, or Vegas-style illusionists like Doug Henning and David Copperfield.

“The Prestige” started as a novel by Christopher Priest. Priest is an English horror/SF novelist who doesn’t hesitate to mix the two genres to get whatever effect he chooses for his stories. Director Christopher Nolan was so concerned over the movie’s ending being given away to American audiences that he kept an American tie-in edition to the movie from being published. Tor Books still got the rights to publish the novel, but they had to do so without the trade dress of the movie.

Christopher Nolan, director of “Batman Begins” and “Memento”, has an unerring sense of direction and pacing, and the sets action are absolutely stunning. He demonstrates a keen understanding of Victorian England as well as the magic community. As adroitly as any stage magician, Nolan stays with his main story, but he introduces a lot of trivia that makes interesting backstory and will probably compel the viewer to go in search of further information. The war between Nikolai Tesla (played by David Bowie in the movie) and Thomas Edison rivals that of the two magicians at the center of this film. Furthermore, the field of lights that Tesla created also inspires curiosity about the man and what he truly did.

The story revolves around two young magicians just getting a leg up in the world while apprenticing to another magician. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) has a mind and flair for showmanship. As he helps work out the water torture chamber, he complains about their mentor’s lack of proper stage presence. Jackman does an excellent job of bringing Angier to limited life. Viewers will feel his passion for magic, showmanship, his wife, and vengeance. Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, is more of a street rat and interested in the technical side of magic. He wants to learn more and show the audiences things they haven’t seen instead of simply re-imagining the same tired magic acts they’ve all seen before. Bale plays Borden rather tight-lipped and intense, but it suits the character and helps mask all the surprises he presents later. Unfortunately the plot twists and surprises preclude any further review of his portrayal of this role.

Michael Caine is a perennial favorite. He’d co-tarred in “Batman Begins”, indicating he’s a favorite of Christopher Nolan as well. He plays Cutter, the prop man who helps magicians come up with tricks, and he also plays something of a father figure to Borden and Angier. Caine delivers the role with such nice touches that he’s a pure pleasure to watch. As always, the man is amazing. He can play royalty, a villain, a pauper, and a genteel soul, go from leading man to supporting character in a heartbeat.

Scarlett Johansson portrays Olivia Wenscombe with a touch of lasciviousness, grace, and cranky possessiveness. Her time on the screen is actually small, but the part plays big. Borden and Angier’s reactions to and use of Olivia are sharp realizations of their character as well as hers.

Borden’s wife, Sarah, is played by Rebecca Hall. The role is filled with such quiet desperation and adoration of her husband that the events that unfold have a more dramatic effect. The final scenes with her are free of dialogue but more compelling because of her delivery.

Andy Serkis actually steals the movie on several occasions with his portrayal of Alley, Nikolai Tesla’s assistant and major domo. He’s a pleasure to watch as he calmly walks in and mesmerizes the viewer with his quiet, intense acting. Judging from his upcoming projects, others have noticed his quiet skills as well. And, of course, he was the motion-capture model for Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

Piper Perabo stars as Angier’s wife. Again, she doesn’t actually appear onscreen for a long time, but she softens the hard edges of Angier’s character and brings him as close to being likeable as he ever gets the whole movie. The relationship she helps bring to life during those few minutes seems sweet and tender.

Rocker David Bowie turns in a solid performance as eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla. He’s quiet and reserved, very much in character, and yet the viewer gets a sense of the demons and dreams that drove him.

The film’s plot closely follows Priest’s book. It begins with an interesting hook, where one of the magicians is accused of the other one’s death. The audience watches everything but doesn’t know why the animosity is there or what is really going on. What they see looks like a tragic accident. But is it?

From that point, Christopher Nolan works the technical side of the storytelling for all its worth. He renders three stories, all of them seemingly told by Borden and Angier’s journals, with everything kept strictly aboveboard. However, misdirection is ever the most telling weapon in a professional stage magician’s arsenal. Nolan, in his way, is as crafty as any of the illusionists working today. His handling of the material is masterful. He actually tells the audience how he’s doing his tricks, but they don’t believe him.

Where the story, to an extent, veers so sharply off course is the lack of knowing which magician to root for. Borden and Angier swap roles of being the villain almost at the drop of a magician’s hat. It makes for vastly interesting storytelling and lots of plot possibilities, as well as a see-saw cat-and-mouse chase as they exchange the roles of predator and prey as well.

The problem is if the viewer sees through the magic of the trick too easily or too soon, which is unlikely, the trick gets ruined. But Nolan’s gift for pacing throws that off to a degree. He keeps the three balls of his storylines in the air and casually makes them disappear and reappear so quickly that the viewer’s fascination may dull the awareness.

The historical aspects of the movie are spot-on. Nolan’s atmospherics pull the viewer in gently and sweep them into the stories. With three different tales going on at once, all of them more or less concurrently in viewing time, the viewer always has something to keep up with. The sets lend to the viewer’s distraction, ever-changing so none of the sets becomes too familiar.

The high-def video aspects bring out the best of the movie’s visual aspects. The picture is clear and clean, and the presentation allows the depth of detail the set designers went to in order to create those worlds.

The audio portion of the movie, the soundtrack, the echoing timber of the theaters, and the mechanical noises of the equipment working (especially the SNAP of the magic cage killing the dove at one point) all hammer the viewer’s senses. Nolan uses the sound to build the illusion and provide distraction as well.

There are a lot of special features on the disc. Viewers that enjoy the movie, or want to see how it all came together technically, are encouraged to take a look at The Director’s Notebook, where Nolan loads up background and technical aspects of making “The Prestige”. The section on Tesla is interesting and enlightening.

“The Prestige” is a good movie rental, and viewers may view it immediately again after watching it the first time as some reviewers have stated, but it’s just a great trick that isn’t going to leave an emotional impact. More than that, people who have seen the film are going to have a hard time talking about the movie with someone who hasn’t seen it, without giving too much away. The movie is worth watching once, or maybe twice, but replay value beyond that is almost negligible unless the viewer wants the chance to study more of Nolan, Jackman, Bale, or Caine’s work.

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