Judge Dennis Prince always feared magicians. And clowns. He's petrified of clowns.
Our review of The Prestige, published February 20th, 2007, is also available.
If you've never believed in magic then you haven't yet taken a very close look at The Prestige—it is magic. To clarify, while it is a film that concerns itself with the practice of prestidigitation at the turn of the 19th Century, the sleight of hand that the narrative concerns itself with is not the true magic on display here. No, the real magic here is that of traditional "movie magic," in which director/writer Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) practices exquisite sleight of hand of his own, methodically and precisely manipulating the film medium and, ultimately, his attending audience for the entire performance. In a time when movies have become so tirelessly formula driven, Nolan displays a deftness (once again) to usurp the mere mechanics of filmmaking, delivering a masterpiece that all but ensures his status as a bona-fide auteur.
Are you watching closely?
Facts of the Case
It is the end of the 19th Century, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, The Fountain) are two magicians in steadfast competition. Having previously worked together in another magician's assist, an illusion gone terribly wrong escalates their already contentious relationship to the point of unbridled vengeance. Devising and demonstrating exciting new feats of "magic," they set off to headline their own respective acts, both determined to outdo one another. Angier believes he will triumph, given that he has the appropriate stage appeal and has become quite skilled in the mechanics of execution, largely thanks to the work of his "technician," Cutter (Michael Caine, Children of Men). But just when he is convinced of his superiority of performance, Angier finds himself absolutely stupefied when he witnesses Borden perform "The Relocated Man," an illusion that defies explanation. Angier is bent on discovering and improving the method of the illusion, which sets off the ultimate battle between the two magicians. Both stalk each other relentlessly, foiling each other's performances whenever possible, ultimately descending into the darkest realms of a rivalry intent on revenge.
The Prestige restores faith in potential of modern filmmaking, plain and simple. It is an absolutely irresistible adventure that commands its viewers to watch closely, very closely. In this way, it coaxes out the active participation of its viewers and, for that reason, it succeeds far beyond the template-driven films that flash and splash before our eyes but never understand the need to get audiences too terribly involved. The Prestige treats its audience with respect and regard, knowing it can only perform its act successfully so long as all eyes are fixed upon it. This is where it manages to perform its own brand of masterful misdirection, clearly offering answers to its riddle along the way, but in a style that makes such information appear inconsequential at the outset. As the film progresses, and as Nolan makes impeccable use of an elliptical narrative timeline, viewers suddenly perk up when they discover important plot connections. It's a very engaging experience, one that comes along far too infrequently. It reminds us how enjoyable a film can be; the sort that does require we pay close attention from start to end, providing a truly satisfying film experience.
While there is plenty to marvel at within the scope of the illusions performed, the greatest "escape act" here is the one Nolan's film offers to his audience, granting them the opportunity to become fully absorbed in the narrative. That is, the film is so compelling in its intricacy and insistence that we quickly find ourselves under its spell, pleasantly puzzled at times and excitedly aware at others. Precise scripting along with acting that never breaks character—not even for a moment—and direction that effectively misdirects with every point of its revelation makes The Prestige a film for the ages, and a truly rare commodity amid the brazen hawking of inferior film product. This is a film that charms, inspires, confounds, and ultimately satisfies in a rich and regal manner.
To reveal much about the story and the method in which in unfolds would be to rob viewers of this unique experience. Understand that the performances are top notch, Bale and Jackman both entirely committed to their characters—obsessively so—with attending Michael Caine serving as the sage advisor. The most magnetic performance, though, is that of David Bowie as the eccentric and enigmatic Nikola Tesla. Bowie effortlessly commands complete attention when he's on screen to the point we deeply wish to have been able to spend more time with him. Hopefully, we'll see more of the versatile artist very soon.
Another Blu-ray exclusive release from Buena Vista, The Prestige is presented in high-definition in stellar fashion. The image is presented via a 1080p / AVC encoded transfer that gives the film visual depth and detail not seen in the Standard Definition transfer. With an intentional muting of much of the film's color palette by the astute production designer Nathan Crowley, contrasting colors burst forth and actors' faces emerge vividly to add even more intensity to the proceedings. From period costuming to Victorian-style structures, the details are vivid and quite striking, furthering our ability to become completely drawn into the events. Contrast is excellent and the often dark lighting design never obscures shadow detail. The source material is flawless and there are no signs of compression fallout. This is a top-rate transfer, and hopefully a harbinger of more good things to come from Buena Vista's library.
The audio is also to be applauded, not for any explosive styling, but rather for its careful attention to detail and, in some cases, its discretion. Most often, the mix is well contained to the all-important dialog aspects and not given to artificial exaggerations that might exist merely to show off an upper-tier audio setting. Instead, it maintains a realistic ambience that again works to maintain our deep attentiveness, rocking us back in our seats when truly striking events occur. David Julian's excellently evocative score slyly and surely surrounds us, not in bombast but, rather, in a way that subtly pulls us deeper into the magicians' dark obsessions. This is a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track and it sounds terrific in its deliberately understated delivery.
As for extras, this Blu-ray disc contains the same material available on the day-and-date Standard Definition release. Unfortunately, much like a magician's own cryptic notebook, this disc is a bit stingy in its backstage revelations. The featured item, The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Director Christopher Nolan, is a 20-minute excursion—relatively brief—into the production. There is enough material here to only whet your appetite, never delivering the sort of intense exposition we crave. It's good but it's simply too short. It is presented in an MPEG-2 HD format, and that's a definite bonus that, hopefully, will continue with future Blu-ray releases. The other extra is The Art of The Prestige, a slide show of stills and design elements that plays for about 15 minutes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With The Prestige playing out to practical perfection, it's difficult to find an argument against it. However, to reach a bit, the title itself might undersell what it represents. Those unfamiliar with the original 1995 novel by Christopher Priest might utter "huh?' upon first seeing a trailer for this film. It isn't heavy-handed in telegraphing its topic matter and requires a closer look before it can be understood by the casual passer-by. In one way, this works for the film's intent of mystery, yet, unfortunately, it also allows for a more directly-titled knock-off, The Illusionist, to steal some of its thunder. This is a minor quibble, of course.
And—not a rebuff but merely a playful observation—as dark as the narrative becomes, there is a rather oblique bit of humor inserted by way of the warring magicians' touting of their respective versions of the "Relocated Man" illusion. Angier counters Borden's "The Relocated Man" with his own "The New Relocated Man." Borden retorts with "The Original Relocated Man"—it reminds of a fun giggle found within This is Spinal Tap when Nigel and David speak about the absurd variations of the band, "The Originals." [Ed. note: And the multiple iterations of Famous Ray's Pizza in NYC, too.] Whether or not this was intentional on Nolan's part, it's still a nice touch of subtle humor that offers brief levity and even perspective on the depth of the magician's unstoppable one-upmanship.
The Prestige is fine filmmaking from an overachieving director. Nolan is certainly the "act to follow," raising the cinematic bar for his contemporaries and, by this point, all but assuring that his pictures will be sought out. His work is entertaining, engaging, and well worth the price of admission. More directly, Nolan's film The Prestige is magic you can believe in.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Featurette: "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Director Christopher Nolan"
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