A few years ago, a little movie called Memento made a lot of filmgoers sit up and take notice of a shining new talent: Christopher Nolan. Memento was the kind of film that movie junkies love: original, thought-provoking, and worth seeing several times. But it hung on a device that, for lack of a better term, was a gimmick. The question was, could Nolan hang on as a filmmaker, or would he be destined to go the way of M. Night Shyamalan, making movies that made less and less sense just to add in the twist that everyone saw coming in the first place?
Last year Nolan finally put the naysayers' doubts to rest with the release of Batman Begins. This exciting retelling of Batman's origins effectively relaunched the Batman franchise and brought Nolan back into the limelight, along with his star, Christian Bale.
Nolan reunites with Bale and another Batman Begins co-star, Michael Caine, for his latest film, The Prestige. It's a film with the dark atmosphere and assured film making exhibited in Batman Begins, with the themes of deception and betrayal last seen in Memento. In many ways, it's a culmination of all of Nolan's work to date.
Christian Bale stars as Alfred Borden, a magician in turn of the century England. Borden is determined to take magic to a level never seen before by the world. His contemporary, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), is more concerned with fame. The two initially work together as apprentices under another magician, but a fatal accident that may or may not be Broden's fault drives a wedge between the two men, which slowly escalates into a war of wills which will lead them across an ocean and into the depths of their own depravity.
If Batman Begins was something of a surprise comeback for Nolan, The Prestige is an equally surprising leap forward. Clearly riding high on a creative wave, Nolan fashions The Prestige with such style, flair, and utter confidence that at no point does the audience slip from his grip. The Prestige is carefully structured to mirror the magic which is the centerpiece of the film. Just when you think you see how Nolan's pulling his tricks, he pulls another one out of his hat. It's masterfully done.
But it's nothing without great actors to carry it forward. And Nolan has an excellent trio of leads, able and willing to take everything Nolan throws at them. Bale once again plays a man in the grip of obsession. This time the object is magic. Borden doesn't do magic for fame, he does it for the illusion itself. He lives his magic so completely that nothing else, not even his own family, can compare to it. Jackman is equally good as Angier, a man who understands that magic is a form of entertainment, but who is driven to desperate acts by his own pride as a magician and a man. Michael Caine acts as a Greek chorus of sorts. He's on the sidelines, making comments, making judgements. It's a testament both to their abilities as actors as well as Nolan's ability as a director that all of their performances seem completely believable.
The supporting cast is equally strong. The generally wooden Piper Perabo is much more organic in her role as Angier's wife, and Scarlett Johanssen once again shows her depth in a role that would have seemed petulant if played by a lesser actress. There are also several notable English character actors who make very enjoyable cameos in various roles. And then, of course, there's David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Bowie is a pleasure to watch, understating just about every element of his performance, while still commanding the screen every time he appears. His introduction is especially breathtaking. And it was a nice surprise to find Andy Serkis of Gollum fame as Tesla's faithful assistant.
The plot of The Prestige takes many twists and turns, from the streets of London to the mountains of Colorado Springs, from rags to riches, from period piece to science fiction, but it's all in the service of the larger themes of the film. Even the various plot twists and reveals still work even if you see them coming, because it's not the twist that's important, it's how the twist shows the true nature of the characters. It's this factor that elevates The Prestige beyond a simple genre exercise.
The Prestige is dark. It's unforgiving. It tells a story that can be frightening in its implications. But it does it with such panache, such confidence that not for one moment do we doubt it. Like the magic it depicts, The Prestige is a trick so astonishing that it's worth seeing even after we know its secrets. Highly Recommended
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.