Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prestige: Hey, it's magic!

The Prestige concerns an all-encompassing fierce competition between magicians—Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, and Rupert Angier, played by the ubiquitous Hugh Jackman—in late nineteenth-century London. Directed by Christopher Nolan, from a story concocted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige has the viewer in its grasp from its beginning through to the end of its two hours plus, leaving one breathless and perhaps just a few steps behind the secrets within secrets within secrets.

As is of course not surprising for a film about magicians. Bale, one of Nolan’s favored actors, is brooding and dark, playing a working-class striver. Jackman plays a toff with great ease, who resists performing, until he can’t resist trying to best Bale at his own game. Caught up in their rivalry, we follow, with wonder and amazement, but no real emotional involvement; this is not a film that inspires catharsis.

The story is crosscut between and among the distant past, the more recent past, and the present, but is not difficult to follow thanks to Nolan’s assured storytelling skills. Bale and Jackman do well by their characters, aided and abetted by Michael Caine as an ingenieur (he builds magic tricks) who knows more than anyone else how the story will turn out, and another memorable, quirky performance by David Bowie as electric genius Nikola Tesla (what has happened to David Lynch’s Tesla film?), who figures in the plot, as well. The scenes at Tesla’s hideaway laboratory in Colorado Springs are beautiful to watch; the echoes of his lifelong and real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison echo the plot nicely.

The women associated with these men live lives that are far less magical, including Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall, both overwhelmed by poetic curls; the latter, especially, emotes all over the place but doesn’t get much from her spouse Bale, which is the point. The also-ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson fares better as a magician’s assistant who functions in the story. This time around, coming off of her Black Dahlia role in tight sweaters, Johansson is perennially costumed in fetching outfits that appear to be one size too small, especially on top. (Something for everyone, I guess; there is also the near-obligatory shot of Jackman, shirtless and hirsute.)

I won’t go into specifics of the rivalry, because that unraveling is one of the principal delights of the film, which I recommend highly.

One comment about accents: The Prestige is set in London, so one would expect a range of upper- and lower-class and perhaps even regional accents. Johansson works hard to maintain her accent, and of course Michael Caine doesn’t have to. But Jackman, who grew up in Sydney and whose parents are English, sounds completely American at this point, and Bale, who is Welsh and English, sounds as if he’s swimming somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. This all-over-the-place isn’t as distracting as it sounds, but it did lead me to wonder to what extent the director ever addressed the issue of how he wanted his cast to sound.

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