“The Prestige” presents a magical mystery tour de force
If the current estimates are accurate, then the film industry’s box office for 2006 could end up being the lowest in the last five years. With the holiday season around the corner and no blockbusters that feature hobbits, wizards, big gorillas or talking lions in sight there won’t be any magic rabbits pulled out in the coming weeks to rescue the industry.
But that doesn’t mean 2006 won’t be remembered for some on-screen magic. Two of this year’s best films involve the art of deception. “The Prestige” arrives on the heels of “The Illusionist” which is still wowing audiences 2 months after its release. Too much sleight of hand for one year? Hardly.
While both films cover a similar turn of the century Victorian period they go in different directions to surprise and impress. If they were works of art (and whose to say that they aren’t?) “The Illusionist,” with its fanciful romantic leanings is a Monet to “The Prestige’s” more somber, somewhat bewildering Picasso.
Since the tricks director Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins,” “Insomnia,” “Memento”) has up his sleeve are a big part of the fun here, few details will be disclosed. Using the explanation offered by the narrator in “The Prestige” we will dissect the film into the three central parts of a great magic trick.
The Pledge: The set-up of the film is simple but beguiling. Two apprentices (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) begin their careers working in London as plants for a successful stage magician (real-life illusionist Ricky Jay). The accidental (or is it?) on-stage death of the wife of one of the adversaries provokes a vengeful contest of one-upmanship-throwing the two into an obsession with each other’s work.
The Turn: Nolan’s reliance on flashbacks, multiple story lines, mechanical devices, and science fiction spectacle combined with compelling actors make the film at once puzzling and dazzling. Jackman’s Robert Angier is the charismatic showman. Bale’s Alfred Borden is the ruddy, less polished but brilliant craftsman. The always reliable Michael Caine stars as a gifted trick designer who attempts to keep the men grounded in reality. Add in a wonderful cameo (which will be kept a surprise) by an iconic rock star as Nikola Tesla, an exotic inventor (and the film’s only true historical figure) whose mysterious experiments in electricity intimidate those of rival Thomas Edison. Women play supporting roles (newcomer Rebecca Hall is a more welcomed presence than the talented but overexposed Scarlett Johansson) but in “The Prestige,” love takes a backseat to the chilly brutalities of obsession.
The Prestige: The films third act in which many of the twists are revealed requires astute concentration and is filled with enough ambiguity that some may feel less fulfilled at movie’s end than “The Illusionist.” There are some foreshadowing moments that a second viewing will help explain, no doubt. It is far easier to forgive a film’s flaws if it can prompt endless discussion about its intricacies and philosophic undertones.
Like any great illusion, “The Prestige” relies on ample amounts of misdirection, and even if (a big if) we see the conclusion coming, the journey is fascinating in every regard.
Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.