The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan's 'The Prestige' is one of those films that should be seen twice. It's a puzzle film of sorts, one that rewards a second viewing, although how it'll hold up on further viewings is something that remains to be seen. It's a slick fantasy / period film about a pair of dueling magicians in turn of the 20th century London, based on a novel by Christopher Priest.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are at the start of the tale apprentice magicians who work together. Angier is charismatic and refined, and somewhat aristocratic, while Borden is more thoughtful and focused, and decidedly working class. Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) works as the magician's assistant; during a trick involving a water tank, she drowns. Borden tied the knots which bound her for the trick, and Angier blames him for her death. This event sows the seeds for a bitter, obsessive rivalry that will consume both men.
The story is told as three narrative segments that are intercut. One segment, the primary one that accounts for most of the film, tells the story of the rise of the two magicians' careers from small scale acts to major successes. It is here that the two are directly in conflict, with each sabotaging the other's efforts during their rivalry. Borden falls in love with and marries a woman named Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but their relationship is turbulent because of his obsession with his art. Angier begins a relationship with his assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but it too is burdened by his obsession with outdoing Borden and getting revenge, an obsession which is further fueled when Borden develops a seemingly impossible trick that wows the crowds. The trick is 'The Transported Man', in which Borden walks in through one door and appears out another one metres away almost instantaneously. Angier attempts to duplicate the trick and is aided in his all encompassing efforts by his engineer, the experienced Cutter (Michael Caine).
The second segment of the film follows Angier as he heads to the US to meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whom he believes can create a machine for him that will allow him to perform 'The Transported Man' in the same way Borden did. The third, which takes place in the 'present' of the film, sees Borden incarcerated for the murder of Angier.
There are, of course, surprises in the story that I haven't mentioned. The film is presented like a magic trick, which we are told is broken into three parts - the pledge, the turn, and the prestige, with the prestige being the climax. The story is enriched by elements of foreshadowing and by symbolism throughout, some of which may not be fully appreciated on a first viewing. Saying any more would be remiss as this is one of those films best seen without too much foreknowledge. Suffice it to say that the film plays fair by the audience, and sets out enough information for everything to make sense by the end; in fact, even enough to figure out what's going on before the end. The core of the tale is about the two protagonists and their obsessions, and how those obsessions cause them to destroy both themselves and everyone around them. It's well written, with sufficient characterization for the two magicians. They are both selfish and detestable, but they are also ultimately sympathetic slaves to their natures.
As with all of Nolan's films, 'The Prestige' is immaculately made. It's slick and stylish, and the production values are excellent. There is a strong visual sense of the period and setting, but the narrative leaves the period aspect in the background to a great extent and focuses solely on the characters and events. Again as with his other films, this one also has a cold detachment from its characters, a tonal choice that works because of the focus on plot and detail; the characterization leans towards supporting the plot instead of being the core element. Also requiring a mention is the excellent editing of the different segments to create a cohesive and lucid whole, impressive given the constant jumping back and forth between timelines. And finally the music, which is subdued and appropriate while not being particularly memorable.
Bale and Jackman anchor the film with their excellent performances. Jackman's Angier is charismatic and a consummate showman, but also tortured by the loss of his wife and his need to defeat Bordon. Bale is, as always, full of intensity and is enigmatic as Borden, and while he is for the most part unemotional his few scenes with his wife and daughter convey enough humanity to make the character fully rounded. Michael Caine is in fine form as Cutter, a man with a sharp mind and a mixture of enthusiasm and weariness who tries to act as a voice of reason for Angier. Truly excellent in a minor role is Rebecca Hall as Sarah, a character whose relationship with Borden is made believable in just a few scenes and who brings a much needed element of normalcy and decency to a film populated mostly by oddballs with few scruples. David Bowie is suitably mysterious and aloof as Tesla, though he uses a fairly strange accent that is sometimes distracting. I must also mention Andy Serkis, who is excellent in playing Tesla's very animated assistant Alley. The only weak link is Scarlett Johansson, whose paper thin character is not enhanced any by her performance.
I enjoyed and was intrigued by 'The Prestige', which I think is a very well made, unique, and entertaining film that tells a compelling story and is full of little details that make for a rewarding viewing experience. It's a twist movie that focuses on setting up its twists but not at the expense of good stuff like themes, characterization, and drama. Needless to say, its worth watching.