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November 2, 2006

The Prestige' a perfectly assembled film with depth rarely attained

Finally, the great movies are arriving. A few weeks ago, we got the thoroughly enjoyable gangland revival "The Departed." But with Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige," we get something completely original. I've watched thousands of movies in my 24 years, so it's increasingly rare that I see a film that's wholly original. But I've never come across anything quite like "The Prestige."

This is one of those movies that's almost impossible to write about for an audience that hasn't seen it. To give even a slight synopsis would take away from its spell. I'm essentially reduced to saying "Trust me, it's great" and hoping all of you rush to the theater. But there are a few things I can say.

The film concerns the rivalry between two magicians, the chiseled showman Angier (Hugh Jackman) and the tortured artiste Borden (Christian Bale). As the years go on, the stakes get considerably higher, to the point that careers, marriages and lives are on the line. Their obsession leads to extraordinary lengths, even drawing in Serbian physicist Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie in a brilliant bit of casting). The line between magic and reality is crossed, and there are devastating consequences.

Nolan has never made a bad film, but he's at his best here. Most great directors have a showy, transparent style, using the same tricks over and over again. If Nolan has a calling card, it's his astounding subtlety and the quality of his work. His films explore profound philosophical questions without ever coming across as pretentious or preachy. Consider how skillfully "Batman Begins" differentiates between justice and vigilantism, or how "Memento" stages its complex, disturbing central debate - who are we without our memories? - as a unique and engrossing narrative that mirrors its protagonist's perpetual confusion.

Here, he considers revenge and the lengths to which an artist will go for his craft. There are a lot of small touches that most filmmakers would neglect. Notice how the relationship between Borden and his wife (Rebecca Hall), which would be handled as a boring obligation in someone else's hands, becomes one of the most honest depictions I've ever seen of being married to an artist who is fully devoted to his work. Or how both men's unhealthy impulses manifest themselves in ways that aren't even noticeable at first (especially Angier's behavior in the last act of the movie).

I'm not sure what mainstream audiences will make of "The Prestige." If you go in wanting something fresh and different, you'll love what you see, but the pacing and level of attention necessary to fully appreciate the film may limit its appeal.

Some critics have expressed disappointment over the way the reveals are handled (some are fairly obvious and some are not), but I think that's simple misdirection to keep your eyes off the bigger picture.

There's no debating the level of artistry here, though. Bale's well-profiled intense method acting makes him the perfect fit for his obsessive character, and Jackman continues to establish himself as perhaps the artiest marquee star working today (he has projects by Darren Aronofsky and Wong Kar-Wai on the way).
But no one piece of "The Prestige" distracts from another. It's a perfectly assembled film with a depth that the medium rarely attains.


  © copyright scott howard