As this terrific film begins, a disembodied voice (belonging to
actor Christian Bale) ask "Are you watching closely?" That is more than
just a scripted line: it is an exhortation to the audience, for if you
don't pay close attention to the details of the film, you just might
find yourself lost. Some critics have found fault with this movie because
it requires that kind of deep concentration from its audience. Well, I
am tired of being spoon-fed emotions and attitudes (as in the execrable
LITTLE CHILDREN). Co-writer and director Christopher Nolan isn't
known for making easy movies and for my part I welcome his brand
of movie making. It's not as complicated and screwy as say a David
Lynch movie like
MULLHOLLAND DR. or INLAND EMPIRE which can be
exhausting for an audience. Instead, there is a method to Nolan's
madness and the man who brought to the screen
MEMENTO, the
Americanized
INSOMNIA and recharged the ailing Batman franchise
has done it again with THE PRESTIGE.

 Michael Caine plays Cutter, a magician's
ingeneur, that is, one
who designs the illusions for a performer. As the film begins, he is
nurturing a pair of promising talents -- Alfred Borden (Bale) and
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). The pair are apprentices with a
prestidigitator named Milton (Ricky Jay in a cameo appearance)
along with a female, Julia (Piper Perabo) who has ties to one of
the men. The pair are dispatched to see a Chinese magician (Chao-Li
Chi, best remembered as the major domo on the long-running
television series
FALCON'S CREST). Borden quickly figures out
how he performs and that his "performance" has become his life.
He "acts" off stage as well as on, and to Borden that is the key to
success. Unfortunately, Borden lacks the innate showmanship and
natural stage presence that Angier possesses. The duo soon grow
to be rivals and the film follows an intricate structure to tell their
tale.

 Caine's character explains to the audience that every great
magic trick is comprised of three parts: the Pledge, in which the
audience is shown something ordinary; the Turn, in which the magician
turns that ordinary object into something extraordinary; and the
Prestige, which takes that extraordinary object and inverts it or turns
it into something shocking. Nolan, who collaborated on the literate
screenplay with his brother Jonathan, structured his film in the same
way. I'm sure that multiple viewings of the movie will bring out
the richness and the details, but even on first viewing, I was completely
and totally engrossed.

 I have to say that I was able to figure out part of the "twist"
to the film early on -- if you are paying close attention, the matter
may even seem too heavily telegraphed, yet I also was aware that
many in the audience didn't catch on. If one also pays attention,
there are some amusing lines and in-jokes which apparently I was
the only one who got as I often found that I was the only one laughing
at the action.

 The movie, which is set in the Victorian era, has a special look
and feel to it, and kudos need to be extended to production designer
Nathan Crowley and costume designer Joan Bergin. Wally Pfister's
cinematography is glorious and there is one sequence when Angier
travels to Colorado Springs that is breathtaking and alone worth the
price of admission.

 One of the main themes of the film is obsession and both
Jackman and Bale capture it perfectly. While their characters are
not always likeable or make worthy choices, they are never boring
or dull. In some ways, the struggle between the two characters mirrors
that of Salieri and Mozart in
AMADEUS. Bale's Borden is the better
magician but he lacks the stage presence to fully put over his act.
Jackman's Angier dazzles audiences but always feels inferior. The
two are like different sides of the same coin and it makes their struggle
and rivalry poignant and distressing. Johansson is nicely cast as the
magician's assistant who loves both of them to no go end and Rebecca
Hall does a nice job as the woman one of the men marries.

 The supporting performances also includes a terrific turn from
David Bowie as inventor Nikola Tesla and Andy Serkis as Tesla's
assistant. Also proving the old adage that there are no small parts        
are such veteran New York stage stalwarts as Daniel Davis, Edward
Hibbert, and Roger Rees. Michael Caine, of course, is in a class of
his own.

 
THE PRESTIGE won't be to everyone's taste, but if you are willing
to put in the effort, you will be greatly rewarded. I have a feeling that
this movie will do even better on DVD where audiences can rewind
and re-watch it and savor its distinct and special pleasures.


         
Rating:               A -
         
MPAA Rating:      PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
         
Running time:     131 mins.


               Viewed at the AMC Empire 25
The Prestige
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.