THE PRESTIGE: Blu-Ray (Touchstone, 2006) Buena Vista Home Entertainment
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 out-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), the central plot is quite brilliant and baffling. Initially, Julian Jarrold's and Sam Mendes' producer approached Priest to adapt from his own novel. And although Priest was intrigued by the prospect, it took another year before the book’s option was bought by Aaron Ryder at Newmarket Films. Distracted by the finishing touches on 2002's Insomnia, Nolan hired his brother, Jonathan to work on the script. From here, another 5 long years would elapse before either was satisfied with the final edit, shifting the book’s focus with a strong focus on the visual depiction of its stagecraft magic, carefully spent in three acts to mirror the basic elements of a magic illusion: the pledge, the turn, and finally, the prestige. Although The Prestige would remain thematically faithful to the novel, two major changes were necessary to bring cohesion to the narrative. Lost in translation, the novel’s spiritualism subplot as well as the modern-day book-ends. Evidently, Priest concurred with these changes and the project moved forward as planned.
From the earliest gestation, Nolan sought to secure the talents of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Delays, rewrites and Nolan’s involvement on Batman Begins (2005) pushed the project into a seemingly endless turnaround, even as production designer, Nathan Crowley began to crystalize his ideas for the sets in Nolan's garage, creating scale models, images, drawings, and detailed notations. Meanwhile, Crowley scoured LA for viable locations that could be used to recreate turn-of-the-century London, including commandeering part of the Universal Studio’s back lot, redressed for the occasion. For authenticity, Jonathan Nolan visited Colorado Springs where inventor, Nikola Tesla had once conducted his experiments with electricity, the eventual sequence recreated in the parking lot of Mount Wilson Observatory. Four downtown theaters were used to stage the ‘magic acts’: the Los Angeles, Palace, Belasco, and, Tower. To expedite the film’s shoot and keep costs manageable, Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer, Wally Pfister, employed handheld cameras and staged much of the action under natural lighting conditions. Meanwhile, the screenplay evolved into a rivalry between magicians, Angier and Borden, loosely to mirror the competition between Tesla and Thomas Edison, and, fueled by a ruthless obsession, secrecy, and self-sacrifice, resulting in tragedy for everyone.
The Prestige is a diabolically delicious drama that continues to fascinate upon repeat viewing. John Cutter's (Michael Caine) friendship with stage illusionist, Robert Angier's (Hugh Jackman) is wrecked by Angier’s desire to destroy Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) – leaving him soulless, and, with a menagerie of his own dead clones. Meanwhile, Borden's fixation with maintaining the secrecy of his own twin causes his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall) to question her husband’s fidelity, resulting in her suicide. Angier also sacrifices his love for his dutiful assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) while Borden is eventually hanged and Angier’s last surviving clone is shot. Borden, of the proletariat class, is unafraid to become mired in the thick of things, while Angier represents the highbrow and well-born showman, eager and brash to take fame for a price. Interestingly, neither Angier nor Borden are presented as anything better or more resolved than vicious rivals. This mounting one-upmanship results in unprecedented decimation to all, but an even more grueling emasculation of each character's soul and basic humanity. The race between Tesla and Edison to establish a standard for the transmission of electrical currents parallels Angier and Borden's impossible aspirations, resulting in self-destruction, merely to claim grazing rights as the greatest magician who ever lived.
We first meet Robert Angier and Alfred Borden working an act for Milton the Magician with their mentor, illusionist engineer, John Cutter, the steady and guiding hand. The finale of Milton’s 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, something goes horribly awry, and, Julia is drowned. Robert blames Alfred for Julia's death - a claim he seems to take minor pleasure in by providing no direct answer. The two men part company, determined to outdo each other 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 his thirst for revenge, Robert employs a 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 teleportation trick in which Robert vanishes into a ball of kinetic energy on the stage, only to reappear seconds later on one of the balconies nearest the stage. Tesla advises Robert against this experiment, as per its danger and prohibitive costs. Alas, Robert will not be deterred. As a fascinating aside, the movie also depicts Tesla's rivalry with Thomas Edison, eventually resulting in Tesla's laboratory torched by men hired by Edison (an actual real-life event) – a fitting parable about the grave lengths creative genius will take in order to declare their own supremacy.
The screenplay unfolds into three acts; the first, involving the rather straight-forward rivalry between Angier and Borden. The middle act, showcases their respective endeavors in grand illusions and brings into focus Tesla’s theory of teleportation (a subject that, in life, Tesla believed was possible, though never proved by his scientific data). The last act involves a bizarre fake – Angier’s supposed death, deliberately orchestrated to ruin Borden’s reputation as an illusionist and imprison him for life. During these shocking final moments, the macabre ‘death trick’ is revealed with bone-chilling sadism, best not revealed for those who have yet to see this incredibly dark and compelling dénouement. The Prestige is a fascinating picture, but one in which occasionally, a few of its plot twists play more as red herrings upon repeat viewing. The middle act is where most of the obfuscation occurs: Robert, possessing a doppelganger - a derelict drunkard who agrees to mimic him. We also meet Alfred’s twin - a mute, successfully to double him in public. Both Robert and Alfred lose women nearest their hearts; one, through fate, the other, due to their destructive nature in competition and vanity. Coincidences are one thing. But these tend to pile up in rapid succession, diffusing the tautness and leaving behind an overriding sense of déjà vu. Despite such similarities, bordering on cliché, The Prestige rallies with great aplomb as a deliciously clever ‘period’ thriller. It conjures a magical experience out of the art and craft of making illusions real. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are formidable adversaries. David Bowie give a startlingly credible performance as Nikola Tesla. In the final analysis, The Prestige is a movie to rethink and bear witness to repeatedly.
Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its already impressive standard DVD. The stylized color palette is more finely wrought on 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. These warmer hues are more subtly balanced in hi-def. The hint of edge enhancement inherent on the DVD is absent from the Blu-Ray. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. Dialogue sounds crisp and clean. 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)