2006 was a good year for movie magic, with "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige" taking us back to a time when those Presto! Chango! prestidigitators were as popular as any singer or actor. Both films were extremely well done, and both did a fine job of capturing the feel of the period. Both also had performances that were as captivating as the illusions themselves. But I have to say that I liked this film by Christopher Nolan ("Batman Begins," "Memento") more than "The Illusionist."
It wasn't just the plot, either. "The Illusionist" was a love triangle while "The Prestige" was a competition/revenge film, and both were certainly well written, with strong dialog. I think, though, that there's a richer texture to "The Prestige" and a fuller realization of Victorian life. For that, you have to credit production designer Nathan Crowley and director of photography Wally Pfister. "The Prestige" earned Oscar nominations for art direction and cinematography ("The Illusionist" was also nominated for cinematography), and you really notice what a contribution those areas make to the overall film when you have a close horse race like this one. But "The Prestige" also has a complexity and more mystery than "The Illusionist," and it was cleverly constructed so that the three acts of the screenplay correspond to the three parts of a magic trick that we're introduced to in the film's opening sequence.
Cutter (Michael Caine), the engineer who designs and builds devices for magicians to use, explains that the first part of a trick is THE PLEDGE. The magician shows you an ordinary object or even himself and presents it to you in a pledge of what he proposes to do. That is followed by THE TURN, during which something extraordinary happens, with the object typically disappearing or transforming into something else. Finally, there's THE PRESTIGE, because as Cutter explains to the little girl of one of two rival magicians, there's no applause for making something transform or disappear. Just an audience full of people gasping in amazement and looking around. But when you bring it back, there's delight and an eruption of spontaneous audience reaction.
For me, it's the way the film evoked the Victorian era and the way it cleverly was structured as one great big movie trick in a film about two magicians trying to outdo each other and two readings from a magician's diary that made it the more interesting and superior film.
Then too, a triangle isn't as complex as a film in which we have two magicians who have doubles, and two wives who suffer because of the feud that fuels hatred in both men. In "The Prestige," what you see is not what you get. Pay attention, because screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan play with your head the way they did in "Memento." There's something to figure out in this film, and it comes awfully close to the "How'd he do it?" reaction the audience has to each magician's tricks.
The first clue doesn't even seem like a clue. An establishing shot shows us a ravine with denuded trees in a haze that reminds you of the shot you see of a battlefield after days of violence, with the camera panning over bodies strewn everywhere. Except that there are no bodies in this ravine. Just top-hats--the kind that magicians wear. It's such a powerful and surreal image that you can't help but think of it as a metaphor. Only later in the film do you begin to realize that those hats are much more.
Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, "The Prestige" follows master magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and a young protégé as they initially work together . . . until Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) makes a key mistake. From that point on, it's a bitter feud that pits the two magicians against each other on separate stages as each tries to outdo the other. The feud carries into their personal lives as well, involving two wives (Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall) and an assistant that may or may not be working both sides (Scarlett Johansson). Thomas Edison's rogue rival, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), is even drawn into their competition, as he's sought after to create the ultimate "transported man" trick involving a frightening electrical apparatus.
No magic trick should be explained, and so I'm not going to spoil the plot of this puzzler by telling you much more. Let's just say that the entire cast does a fine job of helping to pull off the trick, though it's almost guaranteed you'll scratch your head at least several times. But as with "Memento," stick with it. Some mystery fans will be able to see the ending coming a mile away, but because of the performances and especially because of the wonderful eye-candy this film provides, there's plenty to enjoy.
The 1080p Blu-ray picture is quite good, with plenty of sharpness and detail even in murky or dark scenes. The film is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and though the palette is deliberately drab in many scenes to make it compatible with the look and feel of the late 1800s, there's still a richness that's conveyed because the picture is so sharp.
The audio is just as good, if not better. The English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) uncompressed featured audio track is rich and robust, with every brush of cloth picked up as if there were a boom mike hovering over every object. Lesser options are in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, which are also very good. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There's not much to pull out of the hat in the way of bonus features, which are shot with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. "The Art of the Prestige" is just a four-part gallery from the film itself, behind-the-scenes, costumes and sets, and poster art. Personally, I've never found these features either exciting or instructive. They always struck me as ephemera or filler on a disc. With no commentary, there's really just one solid bonus feature, and it's a five-part documentary on "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan," which offers sections on "Conjuring the Past," "The Visual Maze," "Metaphors of Deception," "Advocate for the Audience," and "Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century." By far, my favorite was the backgrounder on Tesla, a person I should have known about but honestly did not. It's also interesting to hear that perhaps the greatest magic of the movie is that Victorian London and America were created mostly on Hollywood back-lots and theatres and electric light fields around L.A. Nolan said they were going for "Victorian Modernism," because they weren't making a period film. Perhaps that's what makes this film so fun just to look at.
"The Prestige" is a clever bit of movie sleight-of-hand that diverts and ultimately delights viewers. As the magicians attempt various versions of "The Transported Man," you can't help but feel transported yourself to a time when magic was the big entertainment.