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The Prestige A
Year Released: 2006
"How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?"
The Yari Film Group scored a big art-house hit earlier this fall with The Illusionist, a thriller about a 19th-century stage magician who was more than he appeared. Though handsomely crafted, its ambitions clearly exceeded its means, leading to a plodding, desiccated affair devoid of the wonder for which it strained so hopelessly. How ironic that a much bigger film, backed by a pair of major studios and featuring more overtly bankable stars, could display infinitely greater imagination. The Prestige, another thriller about 19th-century stage magicians with secrets, advances so far beyond its recent predecessor that only the subject matter entices me to mention them in the same sentence.
Credit for that lies largely with director Christopher Nolan, who approaches his projects with a dark vision that I find utterly irresistible. He wanders through the shadows of human desire and ambition, coloring his observations with mordant wit that staves off the despair to which they might otherwise succumb. Showbiz illusion makes a natural fit for him -- indeed, he understands as few others how much film has in common with it -- and Christopher Priest's source novel sets a banquet uniquely suited to his sensibilities. It centers on the bitter enmity between two rival performers, once friends apprenticed under the same man, but now poisoned by jealousy and recrimination. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a master of technique, grasping sleight-of-hand mechanics with unparalleled insight. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is less physically adept, but makes up for it with supremely charismatic stage presence -- something that his counterpart never quite got the hang of. Both have good reason to despise one another. Borden's arrogance once triggered an accident that cost Angier dear, leading to an act of vengeance that threatened to cripple Borden's performing abilities for good. The two survived and went on to successful careers, but the seeds of hate were planted deep, and now the good things in their lives mean nothing when compared to the prospect of destroying each other.
But if the motives are understandable, then the methods are positively Byzantine. I can't divulge too much of the pair's respective moves and countermoves, for the slow reveal of each one forms a large part of the film's appeal. Suffice it to say that each man knows the secrets of their profession well enough to make things truly miserable for his foe. In their efforts, they pull peripheral players into the web, including a pretty assistant (Scarlett Johansson) sent by Angier to spy on Borden (or is it the other way around?) and an old stage hand (Michael Caine) who acts as a Greek chorus for the proceedings. The plot grows intensely complicated (the posters aren't kidding when they admonish you to watch closely) and sometimes strains credibility (fake beards come into play a little too often), but faithful viewers will be richly rewarded by the clever ingenuity on display.
It helps that the two characters at the core of the story are so compelling, and that the culture they inhabit is so uniquely twisted. Angier and Borden begin as ambitious but basically decent men; as the film proceeds, their vindictive campaigns against each other transform them into genuinely nasty pieces of work. The Prestige meditates thoughtfully on how much their chosen profession influences such behavior. Physical danger loomed for all illusionists of the time -- even straightforward tricks could lead to mutilation or worse (animal lovers be warned: it doesn't go well for the living props here) -- and success requires a certain recklessness that can obliterate one's moral compass. Indeed, the illusionist's audience shares some of that viciousness, since a tiny part of every spectator hopes to see something go horribly, fatally wrong. To survive and prosper in this environment, one must hold tight to the secrets of one's craft; revealing how one does it not only spoils the trick (since it's often nothing more than knowing which part of the stage holds the trap door) but may give rivals the means to end one's career for good. The combination of calculated risk and practiced deception bleeds over into both men's lives, exacting an ever-greater cost until their obsession with each other is all that matters. When Borden produces a seemingly impossible feat -- "teleporting" from one side of the stage to the other in a manner that confounds explanation -- Angier endeavors to top him by entering the realm of the truly blasphemous.
Nolan keeps it all together with the same tricks that have made his previous films such joys: deft story development and focus upon character. Like Memento, The Prestige utilizes a complex editing style, segueing back and forth between eras to create a cinematic texture of misdirection and revelation (kudos to editor Lee Smith for an extraordinary job). The results draw us close to the central figures, then let us watch in rapt fascination as their wounds and desires drag them down. A few sore thumbs stick out -- places where plausibility strains or the twists become repetitive -- but like the characters on-creen, Nolan is so good at guiding our attention elsewhere that we soon forget such quibbles. His leading men give him plenty of help. Bale's knack for evoking the dark side is well established, but it's sublime watching Jackman turn his immense charm towards sinister ends (this is easily his best film performance to date). Both make excellent use not only of their characters' strengths, but also their fears and insecurities, which retain a kernel of humanity even as they seek new parts of their souls to sell.
The Prestige rises still higher by merging its cinematic structure with the culture of illusion presented in its story. Obviously, the desire for fame and fortune still drives cinema's icons just as fiercely as Borden and Angier (and has equally devastating results), but more fundamentally, the moving picture arose during the same era of Edwardian mysticism. Its vaudeville origins, the plasticity of its images, and the presence of pioneers like Georges Méliès (himself a stage magician) all mirror the dark compulsions of the characters. Indeed, the entire medium depends upon an optical illusion -- the persistence of vision convincing us that successive images actually appear to move. Nolan brilliantly uses both the technical structure and the trappings of genre to illustrate that connection, aping the same dark sleight-of-hand exercised by his tragic protagonists. The Prestige earns high praise as a terrific historical thriller, but also because it grasps the medium's links to this subject so uncannily well -- just like Welles, Hitchcock, and all those other great magicians whose ranks Nolan is well on his way to joining.
Review published 10.20.2006.
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