In a perfect world, Judge Bill Gibron believes, Christopher Nolan would be making room on his mantel for the many awards he'd be winning for this amazing motion picture. Instead, he simply recommends you make space on your DVD shelf.
Our review of The Prestige (Blu-Ray), published March 19th, 2007, is also available.
Are you watching closely?
The Prestige was 2006's best film, without a doubt. It was better than the rest that the art form had to offer, even topping terrific foreign efforts like Pan's Labyrinth and Volver. Of the five mainstream motion pictures nominated for that non-entity known as Oscar, it is more dramatically sound than the slipshod Babel, more terrifically twisty and complex than Martin Scorsese's Infernal Affairs take on The Departed. It offers characters more compelling than the obvious quirk herders of Little Miss Sunshine and puts the excellent acting in The Queen to shame. It even recreates a compelling foreign setting—in this case, a visually stunning Victorian England—that sends the solemn seriousness of Letters from Iwo Jima directly back to its Asian roots. Along with Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, it represents one of the boldest statements to come out of post-millennial cinema. It marks Christopher Nolan's ascension into the ranks of the great directors, and cements the success he illustrated with Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins. Believe it or not, it was beaten out at the box office by an earnest little romance that also used magic as the backdrop for its story. But for all The Illusionist's fiscal achievement, it pales in comparison to this filmâs masterful artistry.
Facts of the Case
There was a time, far off in the past, when apprentice magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, X-Men) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, Empire of the Sun) worked side by side. But a tragic onstage incident has divided them forever. While Angier has been striving to make a name for himself, Borden appears to be winning the public's affections. Using a trick called "The Transported Man," the younger man has captivated the British public. Desperate to learn his secret, Angier hatches a plan. He seeks advice from his longtime trick creator and sidekick Cutter (Michael Caine, The Quiet American), but the inventor simply wants Angier to focus on his own performances. Instead, our bitter man plots with his female assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, The Island), to spy on Borden. She reluctantly agrees. Finally, Angier learns of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, Basquiat) and travels to America to see what connection the scientist has to Borden's success. But the world of magic is mysterious and enigmatic; before long, certain secrets become tricks unto themselves. While Angier has pledged to turn Borden's fortunes, the last act of this production, The Prestige if you will, is destined to destroy them both.
Sometimes a movie stops you dead in your entertainment tracks. It lifts you out of the theater, recasts your soul as a spirited breeze overflowing with aesthetic appeasement, and gently lifts and drifts you within its amazing cinematic stratosphere. Call it an out-of-body experience, the reason film is considered a legitimate art form, or the very definition of motion-picture magic, but, whatever it is, it happens rarely and often unexpectedly. As a matter of fact, it is so extraordinary that you can probably count on one hand the number of times it has happened to you over the course of your film-going career. Maybe you had a similar reaction to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver, The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Brazil, Terminator 2, Pulp Fiction, or Sin City. Or perhaps it wasn't the entire film that captured you at all, but just bits and pieces of its overall production, such as the acting in Silence of the Lambs or the raw realism of Schindler's List. Indeed, it's rare when a single film can combine all the essential elements of great cinema—directing, performance, scripting, production design, etc.—and create a masterpiece. But Christopher Nolan has done so with The Prestige. This astounding U.K. filmmaker, known to most for his narrative novelty Memento and the Dark Knight revamp Batman Begins, has built a bedazzling puzzle box of a film, a uniquely layered look at how obsession and jealously can undermine and destroy even the most noble of intentions. With this outlandishly engaging film, we explore how such obsessions carve the very soul out of a person.
In this bravura battle of wills, we have clear contradictory combatants. Robert Angier is the settled stage veteran. He knows the ropes but can't quite make them maneuver in the way he wants. He's successful, but in minor, diminutive terms. For him, every trick in his compendium is an overworked chore, a combination of well-studied and expertly choreographed moves that definitely create magic, but often give off an aura of pre-planned possibilities. There is nothing spontaneous or special about what he does—he merely gives the audience what they've come to expect. Enter Alfred Borden. He is brash, out of focus, and incredibly unpredictable. He lacks Angier's suave stature and well-honed flair. He is hungry, immediate, and occasionally reckless in his mannerism. But when he hits the stage and starts his show, sparks fly from the top of his head. He is unbridled charisma and untapped energy. He is more or less magic personified, a trick of the light made flesh, the sense of supernatural power captured in a single human soul. It is clear that these two wizard wannabes are destined to interact. They've even worked together for a famed magician named Milton. They each represent a special segmented part of an incredibly powerful whole. How both peruse their place in the paranormal (and personal) pecking order, as well as the tragedy that forever binds them, become two of The Prestige's many electrifying elements.
Naturally, both men have to be supported by cohorts who both contribute to, and inadvertently control, their best and worst attributes. In Angier's case, it's Cutter, the world-weary, seen-it-all character who empathizes with the performer's inner pain. He realizes implicitly that this magician is utterly made—there is not a single impulsive or unstructured element to his act. Everything is meticulous and, as a result, mundane. It takes a lot to surprise a jaded British public, and Cutter hopes to create the kind of awe-inspiring feat that will aid his friend in overcoming his lack of flash. For Borden, his stoic non-entity of a wife becomes the balance he so desperately needs. She is subtle in her suspicions, but never lets her occasionally irresponsible husband get away with the mysterious murder he seems capable of. Of the two, Cutter is more important to the overall storyline. He will introduce Angier to the elements that make a magic trick great (the pledge, the turn , and the film's terrific title) and watch as his advice goes unheeded and disregarded. Then, of course, there has to be a conduit between the two camps, an individual or incident who will act as catalyst, turning their private war into a public battle. The original bond was Angier's wife, Julia, and the events surrounding her fate have created the chasm that now divides the men. But another waits in the wings to once again merge these obsessive individuals. She is Olivia Wenscombe. She will become lover and spy, mirror and reflection of the two titans destined to collide.
Of all the amazing feats Nolan manages, beyond all the stellar plot twists and cinematic prestidigitation (none of which will be discussed here, less you lose one ounce of The Prestige's plotting power), it's the harmonizing of these individual basics that marks his major contribution. The story is filled with pain and suffering, acts both supposedly unintentional and purposefully destructive. We have to have mixed emotions for everyone here, feelings both valid and veiled in their seriousness and sentiment. We need to love and hate both of our heroes, wanting each one to succeed, to conquer the other's highly held hubris while equally failing in the eyes of reality. Similarly, we need to wonder about their companions, those people who will allow these tyrants to get away with egregious acts of self-centered inhumanity and still champion their individual causes. Perhaps the most complicated character to consider is Olivia. She represents something of a knowing novice, a wrench tossed into the manipulative machinery between the parties, acting as source at some points, sideline at others. Nolan's brilliance—among many other facets to be considered momentarily—is his achievement of empathetic equilibrium among these diverse dramatic elements. At any given moment, his leads could lurch over into an unlikable dynamic, those who revolve around them turning snippy and cruel. When dealing with performance, the most ego driven of all personal pursuits, such stability is essential. Without it, the inner selfishness manifested in such a person would pour out in buckets, blotting out anything remotely considered compassionate or caring.
Naturally, great acting helps, and the entire cast of The Prestige gives Oscar-worthy turns. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are brilliant playing what are, fundamentally, two sides of the same corruptible coin. Watching them side-by-side, you see it—Jackman's fragile inherent fear, Bale's little-boy bluster. Both men are amazingly attractive, the height of leading-man magnetism. To get beneath that outer aura, they dig deep down inside to the very core of their talent and deliver characterizations that are so incredible, so intense, that it's obvious why they weren't given awards season consideration. Oscar likes grandstanding, the noticeable over-the-top turn that gets cranked down to sellable size by a story or a director in tune with such determined deflation. Like oil lamps overloaded with fuel, however, Jackman and Bale burn so brightly, for so long, their talent starts to feel like one of the film's many magical facets. They lose their realistic luster and b ecome almost fantastical in form. Besides, what happens to them is so operatic in its nature that it demands such generated grandiosity. It's something that happens with two of the supporting performances as well. Michael Caine might as well be crowned the new Olivier for the work he has done in recent years. Both here and in Children of Men, he is just magnificent, the perfect complement to a larger-than-life lead. As Cutter, he is the heart in many of The Prestige's more callous situations. Even better is rock star idol David Bowie, buried brilliantly under an amazing Eastern European accent as Nikola Tesla, scientific foil to Jackman and Bale's parlor trickery. In a perfect world, Ziggy Stardust would be battling four other individuals for gold-statue acclaim. He is simply remarkable here.
There will be those who dismiss Scarlett Johansson's turn as classic eye candy beauty with nothing more to offer than sex appeal for the sake of visual constancy, but that would be unfair. True, she is the lesser link in a casting chain so overwhelmingly rock-solid that Hercules would have a hard time corrupting its connections, but Johansson's Olivia is absolutely necessary to the narrative. She's a callback to the reason these two men are meshed in the first place, a reminder of a woman, a tank of water, and a knot that may or may not have been tied correctly. She's a shadow from the past made salient. She's also a way into this insular world, a plane with its own rules, ideals, and cannibalistic conceits. We have to be let in the back door, so to speak, to be accepted into the realm and given over to some of its secrets. Without this in, The Prestige would become incredibly limited and equally unapproachable. It would be nothing more than artistry spiraling inside itself until it implodes. But thanks to Ms. Johansson's openness, her character's complicated desire to both embrace and dissuade her companion's infatuations, we have the portal to appreciate the storyline. Without her, we'd have smart men angry at each other for situations that remain outside their creative control. The Prestige would then degenerate into a movie about loathsome obsession and insane jealously, never delivering the kind of devastating clarity that Nolan so desperately seeks.
This is truly a directorial tour de force, the kind of skilled cinematic conducting that we haven't seen from a filmmaker in quite come time. This is a movie overloaded with flashbacks, flash forwards, defined narrative detours, visual splendor, and necessary, detailed backpedaling; Nolan manages each aspect flawlessly. He is like a less antiseptic Kubrick, carefully manipulating ever last detail of his dense and almost impenetrable production. In turn, there are hints of Hitchcock in how he plays with an audience's established expectations. Indeed, one of The Prestige's best moments comes when contested tricks uncover more human than mechanical truths. All the magic is handled in a way that keeps its intrinsic wonder, a testament to Nolan's overall technique. Unlike The Illusionist, very little explanation is offered. It is often said that prestidigitation cannot work on film (or TV, for that manner), because so much of the trick relies on misdirection and human gullibility—two components a camera cannot recreate. Even when Bale completes his doppelganger gag, we viewers tend to dismiss the image, knowing full well the amount of optical alteration and digital manipulation required to have the actor maintain the illusion. That Nolan can attack that F/X savvy and make his movie as remarkable as it is, that he can keep us guessing over the eventual denouement while still remaining thoroughly lost in the dynamic between the characters, that he can take a simple story of professional one-upsmanship and turn it into a sketch of the simmering immorality located at the base of every man, makes his work on The Prestige that much more powerful.
It's what also makes the movie a candidate for timeless classic status. While it currently appears as the well-made midpoint between the director's superhero serialization, timeâs passage of motion-picture preferences will ignore Batman's rebirth and focus instead on those less obvious examples of Nolan's brilliance. Along with Memento, The Prestige will stand as an unmitigated masterpiece. It's the kind of film that crawls under your flesh, prickling your dormant cinematic proclivities as it makes its way to the heart of your cinematic conceit. In a medium that more often than not baits its box-office hook with lots of high-concept pretense only to pull out the old subpar switcheroo once the actual "entertainment" begins, this is the kind of movie that will live on long after the uniqueness of its approach fades away. It is gorgeous to look at, amazing in its symbolism, and sharp in every vista it presents. In a year that had its fair share of ups and downs, disappointments and delights, The Prestige is something decidedly different. It's a reminder of why movies remains a powerful creative force, a collection of sounds and images that have the ability to sweep us away on waves of enlightened expertise. Like a great novel, a brilliant song, a stunning canvas, or a dramatic piece of sculpture, it's a movie than manages the near-impossible; it transcends its talent and trappings to represent the best that the entire art form has to offer. That's why The Prestige is 2006's best film. That's why it will remain one of the medium's greatest efforts.
Pity then that Touchstone Pictures has decided to treat the DVD release as a mere marketing afterthought. For such a remarkable film as this, the digital presentation deserves more than 19 minutes of entertaining EPK-style shilling and a few fancy galleries. Sadly, that's all the added content that's offered here. Granted, it's fun to hear Nolan describe his inspirations for the film and the decision to go with a handheld camera technique to capture many of the scenes, and elements outside of magic, that he hoped to touch on, but a commentary is much better for this than a selection of sound bites. There is just so much more to this movie than a few celebrity statements and a look at the Universal backlot. In a medium that seems to thrive on the inevitable double dip, this is one new release that truly fails to properly complement the movie being offered. It cries out for a secondary turn, and here's hoping it gets it. As for the technical elements, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is amazing. It is clear, crisp, atmospheric, lush, colorful, rich, and beautifully composed and captured. It recreates the theatrical experience effortlessly. As for the sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is a directional dream. We feel we are in the audience during the many magic performances, hear the terrifying crackle of electricity race across the speakers as Tesla's machinery comes eerily to life.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Note to Criterion: contact the big wigs over at Touchstone and Warners, give the DVD division a shot in the shorthairs, and flesh out this otherwise paltry release with the kind of added content this movie more or less mandates.
There is so much left to talk about, elements and aspects of this amazing motion picture that must remain unspoken and enigmatic. Even the smallest hint of exposure threatens to spread like a descriptive disease, ruining the many magnificent delights to be gained from The Prestige's palpable perfections. The best advice I can give is to avoid all plot synopses and sites that specialize in spoilers, find a couple quiet hours in your otherwise cacophonous life, grab your copy of this spectacular entertainment, and settle in for a fine night of cinema. As you watch, drink in the intoxicating draft of a thriller flawlessly handled, a drama overflowing with remarkable power and potency. It's amazing to think that, a little over nine years ago, Christopher Nolan was a cinematic non-entity in the realm of filmmaking. Since his interesting short subject Doodlebug, he's crafted a deconstruction of the whodunit, a decent reimagining of a superb Norwegian crime drama, a psychological epic involving a famed superhero, and now this. It's like a culmination of everything he's attempted so far—Memento's narrative tangle, Insomnia's mental fanaticism, and Batman Begins' sheer size and scope. Long after this year's Oscar winner has been dismissed as ridiculous or panned as predictable, The Prestige will live on. It's a brilliant piece of work and a timeless motion-picture treasure.
Not guilty. Case closed. No need to continue on. Just pick up a copy of this DVD and enjoy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan
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