Saturday, October 28, 2006
MovieWatch: "The Prestige"
Director: Christopher Nolan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 81
In a Nutshell: When I read Christopher Priest's novel "The Prestige," my reaction was that the book wasn't necessarily all that good, but that it ought to make a great movie. In the surface, I may not have actually been right about that. The book relies on shifting time frames and narration to perform its slight-of-hand, well aware that certain tricks are best masked by the limitations of the reader's imagination. It would take a masterful piece of adaptation to replicate the book's deception. In that context, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have done about as good a job of adapting as was humanly possible. Tightening the book's unwieldy structure, particularly its slowly unraveling conclusion and sacrificing only a few of my favorite images from the page. On screen, "The Prestige" is a much more contained text. Giving dueling magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) a tragic shared past and semi-friendship separate from what was contained in the book explains much of the rivalry that follows. The magical obsession of these two men fits "The Prestige" into Nolan's gallery of pathologically obsessed heroes, men too bent on the business of revenge to exist within the natural world. I've read complaints that the film's twists are too easy to spot, but I can't speculate on that, since I knew the answers going in. I just relished the craftsmanship Nolan uses to distribute clues while also misdirecting. I don't think the movie -- about how magicians perform tricks, about they steps they take to get to that wondrous final step... the prestige -- is really about amazing the audience at the end. It's about the audience's pleasure in knowing they're being tricked throughout. That's why the final reveals aren't supposed to be out-of-left-field-stunning like in a cheap twist film like "The Sixth Sense."
Technically, "The Prestige" is marvelous. Wally Pfister's cinematography balances the obviously glorious moments -- the opening shot is a thing of beauty, particularly if you know its meaning and the image of Angier in a field of inexplicable light bulbs also lingers -- with less showy period details and Lee Smith's editing is flawlessly complicit in Nolan's storytelling. The performances are also strong throughout, with Jackman and Bale working hard to protect two characters who are distinctly unheroic and almost impossible to identify with. As related in Priest's book, I think the casting should have been reversed, but the brothers Nolan have similarly reversed which character ends the story as the tragic anti-hero. Bale is intense and believable and this is unquestionably the finest work Jackman has ever done on the big screen, by a wide margin, I'd say. While Michael Caine's wise old engineer is a good addition from the book, the ladies are still distinctly background characters. That being said, I though Scarlett Johansson's British accent (which geographically all over the map) was passable and her appearance in period magical assistant's garb was beyond reproach.
I think "The Prestige" is a better movie than many of its reviews have been indicating and a *far* better movie than Disney has been able to market it as. For me, "The Prestige" is one of the year's very best studio releases and one of its better films overall as well.