Yes, yes, I liked the movie. But what I'd really like to mention first is Hollywood's continued tendency for coincidence. Or is "coincidence" too generous a term? The year 2006 saw three major motion pictures about stage magicians and their legerdemain--Woody Allen's "Scoop," set in the present, and "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," set in the nineteenth century. What's more, "The Illusionist" stars one of my favorite actors, Edward Norton, while "The Prestige" stars a host of big names, like Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and David Bowie. Heck, two of the films, "Scoop" and "The Prestige," even co-star Scarlett Johannson. I mean, what are the odds?
Fortunately, I not only liked "The Prestige," I liked the other two films as well. Maybe I'm just a sucker for magic acts.
Anyway, to really begin, let's start with what the title means. The word "prestige" derives from several earlier sources, as noted here from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary: "F. (orig. pl.): deceits, delusions, juggler's tricks < L praestrigiae: juggler's tricks>." In the parlance of today's performers, the "prestige" refers to the final segment of a magician's act. The first stage is the "setup" or the "pledge"; the second is the "performance" or the "turn"; and the third stage is the "prestige," where the magician actually carries out the illusion. The movie "The Prestige" pretty much follows this pattern. So, as with "Scoop" and "The Illusionist," expect more than cinematic sleight of hand from this film.
Co-written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," Insomnia," Batman Begins") and adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, "The Prestige" recounts a rivalry between two London stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), known as The Great Danton, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), known as The Professor. The story unfolds in a series of sometimes confusing flashbacks after Borden's conviction for the murder of Angier.
We get the backgrounds of the two men as they break into the business of magic together and as they move on to an intense hatred of one another that starts when Angier accuses Borden of (accidentally) killing his wife during a stage performance. From that point on, Angier and Borden sabotage one another's act, each trying to upstage the other and become in the public's eye the greatest magician in the city, in the country, in the world.
Borden is clearly the better magician, his "Transported Man" illusion something that Angier dedicates his life to learning or stealing. Angier, however, is the better showman, more capable of captivating and delighting his audience. It isn't long before their rivalry becomes deadly.
Along the way we meet John Cutter (Michael Caine), who designs and constructs the apparatuses for illusion; Julia Angier (Piper Perabo), Angier's wife and assistant; Sarah Borden (Rebecca Hall), Borden's wife; and Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johannson), Angier's new assistant after his wife dies and the object of some romantic interest. Most enigmatic of all are the celebrated, real-life scientist and inventor, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, almost unrecognizable), and his assistant, Alley (Andy Serkis). People of the day considered Tesla's experiments with electricity "real magic," and these experiments come to play an ever-increasing role in Angier's life.
The movie, the plot, and the characters are all about misdirection. Secrets, tricks, and lies abound, and the story would have us ask what is real and what isn't. When do we and the performers stop "performing"? When is anybody actually himself? Whom can one trust, when, and under what conditions? It is unclear if even the characters themselves understand who they are.
Along the way, it is easy for the viewer to get caught up in the deceptions, especially as the movie builds slowly, mysteriously, and then rises in intensity as the competition between the two magicians increases. The filmmakers' creation of a believable nineteenth-century London helps, too, the settings, costumes, and lighting adding to the movie's sense of reality as well as to its sense of wonder.
Weaknesses? A few. I found the film too long for its subject matter and repeating itself along the way. There are brief stretches of tedium also, with dialogue beginning to clutter the landscape where a bit more action might have worked. Then, I found the entire final third of the film too clever by half, trying to outdo itself at every turn, with an ending that is something of a cheat. And, frankly, for me the film explains too much to be entirely satisfying, yet at the same time it leaves too many issues unresolved.
Despite my reservations, "The Prestige" is a wonderful character study and a topflight treatise on the subject of obsession. It may require a little more of the viewer's time than the viewer is apt to find rewarding, but it is one of those pictures where the journey is more important than the destination.
At one point early on in the story, Borden says about the practice of illusion: "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for, that's everything." Although in "The Prestige," the filmmakers (the cinematic illusionists) reveal too much of the secret, they make getting there a good deal of fun.
You could hardly ask for a better picture. The video engineers render the movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio at about 2.20:1 across my screen. The color is excellent, all burnished brass and browns and Victorian reds, with good object definition and virtually no color bleed-through. Flesh tones are especially natural. While intense black levels bring out all the hues, there is still room for much fine detailing. Maybe it's the high bit rate or the anamorphic processing that helps, I don't know, but it looks great.
Matching the excellence of the video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio carries out its duties splendidly. The front channel output is reasonably wide spread, the bass is more than adequate when called upon, and the surrounds do their part as well. Normal crowd noises and voices, plus special aural effects like the electric crackle of Tesla's devices come across quite vividly.
The primary extra is a nineteen-minute featurette, "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan," divided into five self-explanatory chapters: "Conjuring the Past," "The Visual Maze," "Metaphors of Deception," "Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century," and "Resonances." I wish these sections had been longer and went into greater depth, though. Then, there is "The Art of The Prestige," a series of picture galleries covering the film, costumes, sets, behind-the-scenes, and posters.
Things conclude with twenty-four scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at six other Buena Vista products; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired; and a nicely embossed and illustrated slipcover for the keep case.
I'm not sure "The Prestige" is the kind of film that bears repeat viewing. It would be rather like revisiting the same magic act night after night. Yet that one time is a pleasure, and, who knows, maybe after the passage of a few years, it might hold up for a return engagement. It is a prestige item.