Every great movie consists of three parts. In the case of this particular film, those three parts are obsession, obsession, and obsession.
Rupert Abier (Hugh Jackman) is a master showman that lives for the stage. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a natural-born magician that idolizes precision and perfection. When tragedy makes rivals of the two friends, they turn their obsessions toward one another, recklessly sabotaging and upstaging each other until innocent lives begin to hang in the balance. When the obsessions of a third man, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), adds something more than magic to the standoff rivalry, everything is set on a collision course that will end the contest once and for all.
The synopsis above is the least that can be said without giving away too much, and there’s a very good reason for that. The Prestige is about obsession set in the world of magic at the turn of twentieth century, but obsession itself is about the details. Mr. Obsession himself, director Christopher Nolan, has crafted a film bursting with secrets desperate to be told, and to be fair, he hasn’t allowed himself too much time in which to reveal them. Starting at the end and slowly revealing the details in the order he wants you to know them, there’s a lot to take in and little time for telling it more than once. Don’t move, don’t blink, and don’t breathe, and The Prestige will be yours.
This isn’t, however, a happy movie. Even with the romantic entanglement of Scarlett Johansson or the mentor-ship of Michael Caine, tragedy occurs. The plot is, in fact, driven by it, an engine of heart ache powered by death that feeds itself with assigned blame. There is also a prevalent element of evil, seeded in obsession but always a door that one must willingly walk through to truly accomplish. More than once does someone mention “getting your hands dirty,” a thinly-veiled code for putting an innocent life in jeopardy, and it is the extent that an individual is willing to destroy innocent lives that ultimately reveals who the proverbial good or bad guy is in the end.
Of course, it isn’t fair to say that someone makes a villain of themselves simply because they were they last person to make the wrong decision. Everyone enjoys their unique shades of gray throughout The Prestige. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the perfectionist that cannot fathom why a lesser magician is more popular than him; the fact that he will not even confide in his own wife shows the level of his commitment. Hugh Jackman matches Bale’s self-consumption as a man obsessed with finding answers that may not even exist. Michael Caine plays the mentor/friend once again, but he just does it so well. And David Bowie as Nikola Tesla enters the film with the most incredible entrance imaginable (and with Andy Serkis as his sidekick, no less).
The film does contain one instance of the fantastic or element of science fiction that pushes the entire production one step into the realm of fantasy. Having said that, however, the bulk of the film’s effects, what few you might actually discern as special, are far more believable as 1899 stage magic than last month’s The Illusionist would have you accept. Still, let’s be honest. If a man disappears through one door and instantly exits another door too far away to have secretly run to, that’s interesting, but if a man steps into room full of lightning and vanishes as if consumed by it, wouldn’t his instant and unscathed reappearance fifty yards away be at least worth a standing ovation? Make The Prestige your new dark obsession.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)