Mystery/thrillers rarely come this good, but Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) is a movie about magic, as opposed to a movie that is magical. The screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan and Christopher Priest is all about the art of illusion - a obsessive passion that leads to a deadly rivalry between two illusionists in a race to rightfully be classed as the greatest of all time. Fudging history by inserting the credible scientific genius of Nikola Tesla (played with uncharacteristic and exquisite panache by David Bowie) into this mix, the film’s central plot is quite brilliantly baffling.
We first see Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) working an act for Milton the Magician with their mentor, illusionist engineer, Cutter (Michael Caine). The finale of this act involves binding Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) with heavy rope before dunking her into a glass tank filled with water. However, this night is not like all the rest. Alfred ties the knots. But something goes horribly awry and Julia is drowned.
Robert blames Alfred for Julia's death - a claim Alfred seems to take minor pleasure in by providing no direct answer. The two men part company, determined to outdo one another on the stage. Robert takes Cutter and becomes The Great Danton while Alfred hires a new engineer and assumes the stage persona of 'The Professor'. Consumed by rage and a thirst for revenge, Robert employs his new assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johannson) to get close to Alfred and discover his slight-of-hand secrets.
Robert also hires genius inventor Nikola Tesla to build for him an electromagnetic chamber for a magic trick where Robert vanishes into a ball of kinetic energy only to reappear seconds later on one of the balconies nearest the stage. Tesla advises Robert against this experiment, as per its dangerousness and prohibitive costs, but Robert will not be deterred. As a fascinating aside, the film also depicts Tesla's rivalry with Thomas Edison that eventually led to Tesla's laboratory being torched by men hired by Edison (an actual real life event) as a parallel - or perhaps parable is more fitting herein - to the lengths that creative genius will sink to in order to declare their own supremacy.
The screenplay is structured as a magic trick in three equal parts; the first third of the story involves the rather straight forward rivalry between Robert and Alfred. The middle third showcases their respective performances of grand illusion and bring into play the historical figure of Tesla to suggest a theory of teleportation (a subject that, in real life, Tesla believed was possible, though never proven by his scientific data).
The last act of the film involves the bizarre faking of Robert's death to both destroy Alfred's reputation as an illusionist and imprison him for life. During the shocking final moments, the macabre ‘death trick’ is revealed with bone-chilling sadism best not revealed in this review for those who have yet to see this film.
However, about midway through the story the narrative becomes just a tad too contrived, too clever for its own good. As example: Robert has an exact look alike: a derelict drunkard who agrees to mimic Robert. Alfred also has a twin - a mute brother who is able to successfully double him in public. Both Robert and Alfred lose the woman nearest their heart; one through fate, the other through vanity. As such, these coincidences tend to pile on in rapid succession, diffusing the taut narrative and leaving behind an overriding sense of déjà vu.
Despite these clichéd similarities, The Prestige clings together with great aplomb; a deliciously clever period thriller that manages to make a magical experience out of the art and craft of illusion itself. Jackman and Bale are formidable performers - their presence greatly enhancing the material. David Bowie give a most credible and fascinating turn as Tesla: the reclusive inventor of so many contemporary scientific luxuries that are often erroneously attributed to other 'great minds' from his generation. In the final analysis, The Prestige is a movie to rethink and bear witness to repeatedly. It's a must have.
Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its already impressive standard DVD. The stylized color palette is more finely wrought on the Blu-Ray. This is a dark film. Where the DVD often lost much of the background details during darker sequences, the Blu-Ray reveals much more of hidden background information even during the deepest, darkest sequences. Flesh tones are stylized as either cool blue-gray or warm.
Whereas these warm hues on the DVD come across as very orange, on the Blu-Ray they are more subtly balanced to reveal more naturally occuring flesh tones throughout. The hint of edge enhancement inherent on the DVD has been removed from the Blu-Ray presentation. The audio remains 5.1 Dolby Digital - curiously, no lossless HD mix forthcoming. Dialogue that was curiously inaudible during the first few scenes on the DVD is more clearly represented on the Blu-Ray mastering. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD release; distilled into a very brief ‘making of’ featurette and some rather haphazardly assembled shorts discussing production design and character development. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)