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In the end of the Nineteenth Century, in London, Robert Angier, his beloved wife Julia McCullough and Alfred Borden are friends and assistants of a magician. When Julia accidentally dies during a performance, Robert blames Alfred for her death and they become enemies. Both become famous and rival magicians, sabotaging the performance of the other on the stage. When Alfred performs a successful trick, Robert becomes obsessed trying to disclose the secret of his competitor with tragic consequences. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Director Christopher Nolan has a proclivity for warped narratives (Memento) and in The Prestige he serves up a deliciously twisty tale, puffed full of magic theatricality and inventive cinematic devices. With his remarkably sleight-of-hand direction, he spins the tale of two rivaling magicians in Victorian-era London, creating a cerebrally stimulating 2 hour long mise-en-scene in which the audience is literally left guessing and gasping at its rare uniqueness through magic acts and bitter behind-the-stage intrigue.
The final pay-off of any magic act the prestige is of the essence, and preluding it is the pledge, followed by the turn. Together these three key components are slotted in unique positions in 'The Prestige's arrestingly clever script but it is the titular act that propels the film. The pledge introduces our main characters: magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in turn-of-the-century London and we see how their friendship abruptly becomes a fully-fledged rivalry and hostility with a magic act gone horribly wrong in front of an audience. There is a death, and it lights the fuse of an onslaught of reel revelations and the one-upmanship that will ensue between the two competitors. 'The turn' comes to offers twists by the bucketload in the form of love-interests, and technologically marvelous magic acts. I gasped, I scratched my head, I watched on in awe. No description will do it justice.
The prestige as the end note to the show in which, for example, the disappearer reappears to the deafening applause of the crowd is so meticulously composed in the film through foreshadowing and fractured chronology that rigorously intersects, intertwines, intercuts, fast-forwards, rewinds and replays key parts of the story that the whole spectacle floors you. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan have worked out a template script that is more twisty and turny than a mountain road and for that reason I am very reluctant to spoil even the slightest detail of the story of 'The Prestige' of all of its acts, in fact. If you are shaking your head thinking a clever twist ending does not make the movie (and I agree), know that this is not a "gotcha"-kind of Shyamalan trick where you want to stop the film, rewind it and watch it meticulous foreshadowing up to the cheap pay-off, but a tightly-written ever-shifting hall of mirrors with so many intrinsic twists that on your way home you will still be scratching you head and searching for clues.
Our two magicians are perfectly-cast with Hugh Jackman capturing the showy, slick, ambition-driven nature of his character Angier in contrast to Bale's technique-driven purist who may be well on his way to perfecting the craft, but lacks the 'Abracadabra' entertainment value. I had always crowned the latter the more capable actor of the two, but the fact is that Jackman performs just as well in the film. Having said that, Borden has more layers to his complex, contradictory (keyword) persona than the flashy, greedy Angier which perhaps begs more weight from the actor behind the role, shifting more demand on Christian Bale. The sad fact of it is that neither of these two men are likable characters and elicit nothing more than temporary sympathy. However, the secrecy with which the intricate story approaches them makes it impossible for the viewer to slot them in protagonist vs. antagonist positions, and indeed they are given almost the exact same screen-time and voice-over narration throughout, a subtle and brilliant accolade of Nolan's.
To further evaluate the cast of The Prestige, David Bowie and Michael Caine undoubtedly merit a great deal of praise for supporting the two moody, unlikeable leading men. It is a crying shame then that Scarlett Johansson always an incapable actress except for the rare occasions in which she plays a sultry American vixen (Match Point) performs so badly in the role of Olivia Wenscombe, a magic assistant pending between Borden and Angier. Here she is actually given a very good and important character who is not necessarily bad like the rest, but botches her interpretation by giving an unspeakably hammy London accent. Nolan picks up on her shortcomings as an actress, and resorts to boob-shots en masse. This he should be fully entitled to do as a director, for a beautiful diversion will always camouflage the process and any of its potential missteps, as Michael Caine's character puts forward.
With Scarlett as a pleasurable paint-job, twists by the bucket-load and flashy magic tricks as windowdressing to a solid mystery film, there is little or no need to delve deeper into the psyches of its characters to keep our attention. Yet this is done, and superbly so, by Christopher Nolan. 'Antihero' gets a whole new spin to it in The Prestige with two friends-turned-rivals so bitterly poised on the brink of obsession of outshining the other that succeeding with the ultimate 'prestige' of magic followed by applause is enough to drive them to murder, bankruptcy, deceit and sabotage. Borden simply wants to be better on a technical level, while Angier wants the public's recognition and wide-spread fame. Their ambition is in effect largely the same: create the definitive deceptive illusion and do it through any means necessary.
'The Prestige' is a majestic film that nevertheless spans across too long a running time. Condensation would have done wonders and surely bumped it up a notch, as would underpinning some humour at one or two points (it is VERY gloomy), but it truly is a great cinematic achievement and a shoe-in for my top 10 of 1006, and easily the most inventive film I have seen in years. I am eagerly anticipated director Christopher Nolan's next sleight-of-hand direction, and it looks like the closest is The Dark Knight (2008).
9 out of 10
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