Saturday, October 21, 2006

‘The Prestige’

Christopher Nolan is some wizard with a camera.
Consider the roll this 36-year-old British filmmaker is on: He breaks through in 2000 with “Memento,” a cult smash in which the entire story is told backward. He follows that with “Insomnia,” a taut crime thriller headlined by none other than Al Pacino. And then last year he resuscitates the Batman franchise with the flawed but promising “Batman Begins,” which not only puts him right on the A-list, but does the same for his Bruce Wayne, too, Christian Bale (the best of the Bruce bunch, by the way, and it’s not even close).
Now, after that detour into the mainstream, Nolan returns to his esoteric roots with “The Prestige,” an excellent mindbender of a movie about two rival magicians in late 19th century London. Bale is back with Nolan in what appears to be Hollywood’s brightest new actor/director dynamic duo (giving George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh all they can handle and more). The iron-jawed chameleon this time dives into Alfred Borden, an up-and-coming magician whose dedication to his craft knows no bounds. Playing opposite Bale to fabulous effect is Hugh Jackman as the troubled Rupert Angier, a slightly inferior illusionist whose upper-crust upbringing has given him a better flair for the dramatic. Thus the conflict is established early: Style vs. substance, and both want what the other has.
Jackman’s name may be atop the credits, but this movie belongs to Bale—and that’s no shame to everyone’s new favorite Aussie, who gives a fine performance and continues to prove there’s more to him than adamantium claws. But Bale is mesmerizing throughout—there isn’t a wasted movement or a single line where you don’t fully believe his performance.
Of course, it helps these guys are backed up by the likes of Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson, no slouches themselves when it comes to pure magnetism. The venerable Caine plays Angier’s engineer, the man who creates the illusions while also serving as the film’s moral center. Johansson actually has a rather minor role as Angier’s assistant/love interest, but as usual lights up the screen whenever she’s on it.
Neither of the two magicians is necessarily likable, yet they’re fascinating to watch. Both sacrifice everything else in their lives for their art and wear that determination with a mixture of pride and martyrdom. The film is essentially a lengthy game of one-upmanship, albeit an extremely dangerous one, as each becomes obsessed with not only discovering how the other manages their latest tricks, but then foiling the other’s illusions in front of a paying audience.
Nolan is the true magician here, as he weaves scenes together by constantly moving back and forth along the story’s timeline to reveal various aspects of each man’s dementia. In essence, “The Prestige” really does become a two-hour magic trick as it draws from various genres—drama, crime, comedy, romance, and even a little sci-fi/fantasy—to keep us wondering just how he’s pulling it all off. Unfortunately, like his characters, Nolan gets too carried away; there are a few too many double-crosses (or triple- or quadruple-crosses, as the case may be) for the film’s own good. I could have used a little deeper character motivation for the two leads and more actual onscreen magic, but these are relatively minor quibbles for a movie that is sure to engender lively conversation during the car ride home.
On the whole, “The Prestige” is a thoroughly engrossing head-trip with more surprising twists and turns than M. Night Shyamalan’s produced in his entire career. Nolan is still searching for his truly great film, but the method is spot on—it can only be a matter of time.
Grade: A-

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