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Prestige, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/20/06 00:03:18

"Hey Batman and Wolverine, Watch Me Pull A Piper Out Of This Tank!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Considering that movie magic is constantly evolving by leaps and bounds in an effort to convince viewers that they are seeing the impossible, it is ironic that one of the few sights that never really seems to come off is the depiction of actual magic tricks. For a trick to work, we have to be willing to suspend our disbelief and convince ourselves that something out of the ordinary is actually happening right before our eyes. That aspect is inevitably lost once the illusion is captured on film–even if the entire trick is done in one unbroken shot, there is still the subconscious sense that the image has been manipulated with in some fashion. In bringing his own magic-related film, “The Prestige,” to the screen, filmmaker Christopher Nolan has chosen a different approach towards dazzling his audience–instead of drowning them with visual pyrotechnics, he attempts the far more difficult trick of luring them in with a cinematic illusion that contains compelling characters and a twisty story that will keep even the most attentive of viewers on their toes. Happily, he pulls this feat off with the grace and dexterity of Houdini in his heyday and the result is one of the most sheerly entertaining films of the year.

As brilliant as it is, “The Prestige” is one of those films that is almost impossible to review because it works best if you walk in knowing as little as possible–while I plan on being as vague as possible, it is probably recommended that those not reading this piece solely for my earth-shattering prose should probably check out now. For the rest of you, I can tell you that the film stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, a pair of magicians in turn-of-the-century England. When we first see them, they are friends and working together as audience shills for another magician (played by the always-welcome real-life illusionist/David Mamet stock player Ricky Jay)–when he requires a couple of people in the crowd to “help” with a trick, they are the ones who do the deed and surreptitiously set up the feat. One day, something happens and the friendship between Alfred and Robert is destroyed forever. Before long, the two have become rival magicians and each one tries to one-up the other with bigger and better tricks and when that isn’t possible, neither one is above getting their hands dirty with some painful sabotage.

What else can I tell you? Well, Alfred and Robert each has a wife (Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo) that winds up paying a devastating price for the obsessions of their respective mates. There is Cutter (Michael Caine), an illusion creator who is loyal to Robert but even more loyal to the codes of his profession. There is, of course, a sexy dame–in this case, it is Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman who falls into the acts and beds of both Robert and Alfred and whose loyalties are always in question. There is a murder, perhaps, and there is an innocent man about to be executed, perhaps. There is an astonishing illusion that Alfred devises that Robert soon copies with a lot of glitz–although audiences take to this version, Robert knows that it isn’t nearly as good as the original and becomes obsessed with discovering the secret. This leads Robert on a journey to America for an encounter with the famous real-life electrical engineer Nikolai Tesla (David Bowie) and a discovery that even he has trouble believing with his own eyes.

At this point, I must refrain from telling you any more of the details–I fear I may have already given too much away as it is. What I can tell you is that Christopher Nolan, who made a splash a few years ago with “Memento” and lived up to the hype with “Insomnia” and “Batman Begins,” has outdone himself by tackling a project that is the closest thing that you will find to a directorial decathlon in an American studio film this year. At various times, the film is a complex thriller, a jet-black comedy, a lavish period piece, a special-effects spectacular, an intimate character piece, a melodrama about ethics, loyalty and revenge, a sweet romance, a murder mystery, a supernatural drama and a culty mindbender reminiscent of the works of David Lynch. Pulling off any one of these aspects would be a chore for most contemporary directors but Nolan juggles them all–often at the same time–and switches from one to another without ever letting you see the strain. This is the work of a director fully in command of his skills and confident enough in both those skills and the intelligence of his audience that he is willing to push things further and further as he goes along. (There are even a couple of points where he cheerfully gives away enormous plot secrets but does it so deftly that you don’t realize it until the end credits are running.) And while the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest by Nolan and brother Jonathan Nolan, is a fiendishly tricky affair filled with reversals and unexpected plot developments, they always feel as if they are emerging organically from the proceedings instead of simply being jammed in by lazy writers trying to zap some life into the material. Even more impressive than that is the fact that while they tie up all the loose ends, as far as I can tell, they do so in such a way that will still leave viewers arguing with each other long into the night about what they saw, didn’t see and/or thought they saw.

Nolan’s impressive behind-the-camera performance is matched by the ones that take place before it. As the increasingly obsessed and unhinged Robert, Hugh Jackman has simply never been better on screen and as his mysterious and perhaps dangerous rival, Christian Bale is more than his equal (although the true power of his performance doesn’t really sink in until the film is over. Scarlett Johansson, who has not always seemed at home in period roles, invests what could have been a simple sex-bomb character with the kind of depth and emotion that makes her a full player in the proceedings and Michael Caine eschews the cheerful hamminess that he has been known to indulge in and comes in with the strongest, most focused work that he has done since the vastly underrated 1997 film “Blood and Wine.” In smaller roles, Piper Perabo and newcomer Rebecca Hall both shine and Andy Serkis also pops up for a few entertaining moments. Of the supporting turns, however, the most memorable is the one from David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla. A compelling presence who has only rarely been used to significant effect in his cinematic excursions, his natural freakiness is a perfect match for the oddball Tesla and the result is a performance so striking that you will find yourself hoping that someone will be inspired to do a full biopic on Tesla with Bowie in the lead.

When I saw “The Prestige,” it was in the middle of an exceptionally busy period on the reviewing beat. Some of the movies I saw were wonderful (“Marie Antoinette”) and some were appalling (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”) but at some point, a certain amount of fatigue inevitably sets in and they all began to blend together into one giant entity. However, watching “The Prestige” jolted me out of that state of ennui–this is a film that, like Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” is alive and breathing in a way that most movies today aren’t and I found myself growing more and more excited to see it continually raise the stakes without ever stepping wrong. This is an absolute must-see–one of the best films of the year–and one that you must see as soon as possible before someone else can inadvertently ruin it for you. Just make sure that after you do see it, you take care not to ruin it for anyone else who hasn’t.

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