Are you watching closely?
There's sleight-of-hand at work in The Prestige. Sleight-of-hand on the screen, and sleight-of-hand behind the scenes. The film, the latest from Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan, is far more than it appears. At first glance, it seems to be a story of obsession--with a twist. Yes, I'm sure by now you've heard that this film features a twist. But, unlike other "twist ending" films, The Prestige does not hinge upon its final moments. Instead, the ending is a culmination of everything else that has come before it.
The Prestige centers around two magicians in turn of the 20th century London. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a serious young man dedicated to furthering the art of magic. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), while also dedicated, is more content to please the crowd and gain fame. They both work for a low-level but popular magician, as does Angier's wife (Piper Perabo). One day, during a routine water escape trick, something goes wrong. Angier's wife can't get out. The show's technician, Cutter (Michael Caine), comes to the rescue, but it's too late. Angier blames Borden for his wife's death, and goes to get retribution, shooting off several of Borden's fingers.
The rivalry continues, until Angier sees Borden perform a trick that utterly astounds him: Borden, standing in a box on one end of the stage, tosses a rubber ball, closing himself in the box. By the time the rubber ball bounces to the other end of the small stage, Borden comes out of an identical box on the other side to catch it. Angier cannot figure out how Borden does the trick, but decides to steal it by using a double, effectively robbing Borden of his thunder. And thus, the rivalry escalates, until both men's lives are embroiled by it.
The real trick in The Prestige is how it continues to reveal itself to you, while showing you nothing of importance. Like the greatest magicians, it seems to show you all its cards, except the one that matters most. It's meticulously constructed, but it looks seamless. Nolan, who shot into the public eye with the similarly labyrinthine Memento, has perfected his art. Every scene in this film is working towards a larger goal, but it's not the twist.
Even with all of its trickery, The Prestige is a film about obsession, played to perfection by the two leads. Hugh Jackman's Angier is the real emotional center of the story. Jackman has come a long way since playing Wolverine, and it shows. Angier is driven to bury Borden, but he runs the full gamut of emotion: love, hate, cheerfulness, depression. He never goes over the top (except when he's playing his own double; quite humorously, I must add), and the slow burn of his passions is palpable.
Christian Bale has a much tougher role. Borden is aloof, mysterious, loathe to open himself to anyone, even his wife. He shows moments of warmth, but what he really does is live his tricks. Bale once again proves how adept he is at playing men who lose themselves in something larger than their own lives. Patrick Bateman, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Alfred Borden, they're all men subsumed by a larger goal. Bale's performance is far more internal than Jackman's, which makes the movie that much more interesting. It's not two extroverts fighting for fame. It's two diametrically opposed men fighting over a way of life.
The supporting cast includes a veritable "who's who" of the British character actor scene, including Roger Rees, Daniel Davis, and William Morgan Sheppard. But, I have a feeling you're probably more interested in names like Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie. And without a doubt, they're all fantastic. Caine ties the film together, acting as the moral standard against which the other characters are judged. Johansson is introspective and undeniably gorgeous. And David Bowie, even at his most subdued, commands the screen every time he appears. It's rare to see a movie with an all-star cast not get overshadowed by the names on the marquee, but Nolan is smart enough to have the actors work at the service of the story, and not the other way around. Oh, and of course, I must mention Ricky Jay, perhaps Hollywood's foremost magician/actor.
The Prestige works its subtle magic all the way through the picture, finally climaxing in such a shocking way that it's easy to ignore how well made the rest of the movie is. But watching it again, all I could do was marvel at how precisely the film is constructed. It's a movie truly worthy of the title.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Touchstone Home Video presents The Prestige in a 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode that is, in a word, stunning. To explain just how superb this transfer is, all I can say is that it looks exactly - exactly - how it looked in the theater. If the purpose of these HD formats is to replicate the look of the original film as closely as possible (and if that's not the intention, then I should sell all my discs right now), then this transfer perfectly fulfills its purpose. The detail on the disc is phenomenal. You can see every whisker on Michael Caine's half-grown beard. Also, dark scenes are no problem. There's a lot of depth to the image. Colors are generally muted, as they were theatrically, so there isn't necessarily a lot of pop to the image, but it looks so rich and deep that it can do nothing but impress.
Touchstone treats us to an uncompressed 48 kHz/24-bit PCM 5.1 mix. Like the film itself, the audio is tightly constructed. There aren't a lot of whiz-bang effects that shoot from speaker to speaker, but that doesn't mean the audio isn't great. On the contrary, what this mix does is allow us to hear how much work went in to crafting the smallest details of the sound in the film. And when Tesla's machine appears, you get all the whiz-bang effects you could hope for. Also provided are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.
The heart of the discs' supplements lies in a feature called "The Director's Notebook," which is split into six parts. These are part commentary, part documentary. Specifically, we get comments and thoughts by director Christopher Nolan set to behind-the-scenes footage. Interspersed are interviews with the major cast and crew members. While all the parts combined equal just over twenty minutes, they're a very informative and compelling twenty minutes. And to top it off, they're all in 1080 HD. The back of the case says 1080p, my TV says it's 1080i, but either way, they look fantastic.
"The Art of The Prestige" is a collection of promotional photos for the film. Nothing revelatory, but they certainly look pretty in HD.
Finally we get the "Movie Showcase," a standard Disney company Blu-ray feature, that allows you to skip immediately to scenes that the disc authors think look particularly great in HD.
While The Prestige may end up as The Conversation of Christopher Nolan's career (that is, lost between a higher profile film and its sequel), it's worthy of both praise and study. It shows Nolan at the peak of his abilities, with a cast fully capable of crafting characters that are worthy of the endeavor. This Blu-ray disc looks and sounds extraordinary, and all of its extras are in 1080 high definition. Are you watching closely? Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.