MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Mystery Thriller/ Stars: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, Ricky Jay, Roger Rees, W. Morgan Sheppard, Samantha Mahurin, Daniel Davis/ Runtime: 130 minutes
I think it can be safely said that a magic trick is a relatively simple concept when you really take a moment to ponder it. By that however I don’t mean the lengthy amount of time it can take to both study and master the arts of illusion and misdirection. Rather, I am referring to the act of executing the trick itself. Indeed even as a kid the basics of engaging with a magician are pretty straightforward. You eagerly watch, being completely aware that something is going to happen (even if you don’t know what), and you want to see if by watching as closely as you are you can try to outwit the magic man even though the truth is that he has been ahead of you right from the moment he walked in the door. Then the magic itself occurs right before your very eyes and of course your first question to the wonder in front of you is always, and without fail, going to be “how in the heck did you just do that?” I bring this up dear reader because think it’s safe to say that you will most definitely be asking this very same question after seeing the slice of cinema Christopher Nolan made between his first two Batman movies, The Prestige from 2006. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that is helmed, constructed, and acted remarkably well, but more than that is a truly stylish film that is meant to make you think. A feat that it pulls off courtesy of a complex narrative that you will not only be required to see the film more than once in order to get the full picture of, but will also leave you deep in thought long after the film is over. Suffice it to say that it might not be for everyone, but for those who are willing to go along for the ride I promise you that this is one slice of cinema that is magical and then some in the best way possible.
The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to Victorian-Era London, The Prestige gets underway as we are introduced to a pair of young magicians by the names of Alfred Borden and Robert Angier who, despite being merely aids to a master illusionist whilst being mentored by his top stage engineer Cutter, dream one day of being able to go out on their own and become brilliant magicians in their own right. However when tragedy strikes a bit too close to home for Angier during one magic trick, he places the blame firmly at the feet of Alfred for reasons I shan’t spoil here. What I can say is that it is from that point onward that we see the pair become truly bitter nemeses and begin a genuinely hazardous competition of sorts with each other as both strive to outdo the other with no ethical line being too taboo or no amount of interference being too much. However when he learns that Borden has managed to come up with a trick that is downright incredible, we see Angier is willing to stop at nothing to learn how he does it so that way he may destroy his rival’s career once and for all and that dear reader is not only when things really get interesting, but also where I will stop this plot synopsis not only because to say any more would ruin the surprises in store, but because this is one plot that must be seen in order to be truly believed…..
Now even though this slice of cinema is distinct in how it chooses to utilize the concept of magic as its distinct narrative hook and angle, I can honestly tell you that the slice of cinema that is The Prestige is one narrative that deals with a lot more than just an, albeit riveting, saga of the game of one-upmanship between a pair of stage magician adversaries. Rather, this incredible narrative is one that also deals with vengeance at all costs, misdirection on a grand scale, and retribution that often has deadly fallout and one where we see our two main characters continuously weave their way through it all in their pursuit of being better than the other. Indeed this slice of cinema tells you right from the very beginning to “watch closely”. Trust me when I say that this advice is very much worth listening to and following from beginning to end. Indeed with a cast of truly three-dimensional and engaging characters who can be both admirable yet also highly despicable and a distinct manner for how everything in the film is able to play out (with the inclusions of both jumping through time and flashbacks for reiterating specific and integral moments), I can safely say that this is one slice of cinema that will most assuredly have you, the viewer scratching your head and trying to figure it all out right up until the jaw-dropping conclusion. Now to be fair, much in the same vein as a lot of Inception (seriously is Leo still in the dream or not Nolan?!) or even Memento, this slice of magical cinema can get pretty complex, but that’s ok because all of the twists and curves to say nothing of all the detours in the narrative road really do make this film, much like a brilliant magic trick, truly intriguing. Plus since you can’t really trust any of this film’s cast of characters you should therefore know that maybe you can’t even trust what your eyes are seeing being played out before you. Suffice it to say that although all this chaos in the narrative can make this one truly befuddling from time to time it also by the same token really contributes to just how satisfying this film’s resolution truly is for those who are able to follow this film right up until the moment where the end credits begin to roll.. Yet just as astonishing as the aforementioned creative component would have to be the maze-like script and the truly well-penned dialogue that operates with a brilliant mix composed of comedy, knowledge, and even pathos as well. Indeed included in Nolan’s film helming style is an aspiration for a movie goer to be aware of his method whilst watching a film of his especially when said film involves incorporating enough Victorian Era flourishes that are current enough so they can help the film avoid being narrowed down to a specific period in time. A feat that is achieved not only by having a cast that is fairly unfamiliar with acting in movies set in such era-specific locale, but also by Nolan and his creative team making every single aesthetic choice on this slice of cinema not only feel modern-day and realistic, but also unable to really be insertable into a particular genre and instead permittable to flow through a variety of atmospheres and fashions thus resulting in a period film that, by and large, actually feels almost timeless as a result.
Of course, all the work done behind the camera is truly phenomenal, but this slice of cinema is also blessed with a spectacular cast who all do a terrific job in their respective parts. This starts with this film’s dual leads consisting of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman and it should be no surprise to learn that they are both absolutely magnetic. Now in the role of Angier, I can honestly say that this is easily one of the more underrated and sadly not brought up as often as it should efforts on Hugh Jackman’s filmography. If I had to venture a guess as to why I think it’s because Angier is not really a decent guy. Indeed here is a man who becomes fanatically devoted to destroying his rival’s career to such an extent that it winds up consuming every bit of his being. Suffice it to say that although he is a pretty awful human being by the end of the film, he is also quite sad and fairly riveting as well and Jackman does a wonderful job of bringing him to life in every minute that he is on screen. From there we see that, on the other side of the proverbial coin is Christian Bale and it’s worth pointing out that although his part of the narrative is a wee bit more twisty, it is still just as riveting and mesmerizing as Jackman’s. Indeed the character of Alfred Borden is one who, unlike his counterpart is more devoted to the magic itself rather than the flair and showmanship of it all. As a result, Bale tends to keep things closer to the vest as it were compared to his co-lead Jackman which also means his narrative is a bit more restrained, but trust me when I say that is one creative choice that most assuredly pays off beautifully by this film’s conclusion. Suffice it to say that Bale does not disappoint in this film. Not by a long shot. Yet as great as Bale and Jackman are in the lead roles, Nolan does an equally as wonderful job at getting a top-flight supporting cast to back them up. This starts with screen icon (& Christopher Nolan regular by this point) Michael Caine in the role of Cutter. Indeed I know I might be biased when I say this because I love anytime Caine shows up in anything, but I really love his work in this as he desperately and fruitlessly tries to get Jackman to realize that maybe the key to one-upping Bale isn’t to steal his secrets, but to just move on, live his life, and simply be the best magician that he can be instead. Indeed it really is a co-starring performance, but it’s also the kind where he is literally scene-stealing left and right whenever he comes on screen. I also love the work done in this by Rebecca Hall as Bale’s long-suffering wife Sarah. Indeed it really is heartbreaking to see this woman go from passionately in love and in awe of her love and his abilities to….well you’ll just have to see the movie to see where she winds up. Now I will admit I was a bit confused by Scarlett Johansson’s casting not because she isn’t a terrific actress, but because she just seemed like an odd choice in this cast for the role of Bale and Jackman’s assistant (though not at the same time) Olivia. However, when I thought about how a lot of times a magician will employ a beautiful assistant in order to keep your attention elsewhere then her casting really made sense plus it also doesn’t hurt that Johansson actually doesn’t do a bad job in the part to begin with even if her accent does seem hit or miss at times. Finally, there are two other performances that I think are worthy of mention. These are the ones given by Andy Serkis and no less a talent than legendary talent David Bowie. Now I won’t lie to you dear reader: their roles in this slice of cinema are by no means the biggest in the world to the extent that I would say they both have about 30 minutes of screen time tops. At the same time however I would like to say that both of these gentlemen are such charismatic performers that even with only 30 minutes they manage to do some truly engaging and wonderful work with their respective parts and make them as memorable as the rest of this slice of cinema’s cast of characters.
All in all at the end of the day dear reader the 2006 slice of cinema that is The Prestige is a phenomenally helmed, incredibly constructed, potently performed by a top-notch cast, and (for lack of a better word) just plain magical puzzler that, although not gimmicky or flashy in any sense of the word, is still one slice of cinema that is both delightfully devious in how sneaky its narrative tends to get and even more so in regards to how it chooses to regale us with said narrative. Yes you should know that this slice of cinema is one that keeps its solution away from your grasp until the final frame, but even when it does it’s still restraining itself a fair amount and honestly this makes perfect sense since after all, as this film makes perfectly clear, once you know a magician’s secret then the trick itself becomes painfully obvious. An interesting thing for this slice of cinema to note seeing as it is truly anything but obvious and yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Prestige “06” a solid 4 out of 5.