[box cover]

The Prestige

It's tempting to debate when a particular film director becomes sufficiently elevated enough to earn the title auteur — the term French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s used to promote their theory that filmmaking was not a collaborative art, but instead the work of a single vision, the product of the director's hands. By today's standards, auteur need not apply to every filmmaker, and in fact there are ways to describe those who are not — "journeyman," "director-for-hire," or (impolitely) "hack." And the theory of the auteur remains very much that: an argument to be put forth, and those who disagree will readily point out the contributions made by novelists, screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors to a final cinematic product. Instead, auteur seems to have become a shorthand honorarium, a way to say that a director who has delivered more than a few films, most of good quality, with consistent style in limited genres, has done what's expected by the critical establishment — John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and Howard Hawks have earned innumerable scholarly tracts and tastefully written coffee-table books essaying their contributions to the filmed arts. However, one trait of the auteur risks being overlooked, even though it's the most readily apparent: the stock company. Directors with commercial clout can cast as they please, and the most prolific tend to re-use actors in various projects. Leading men such as John Wayne, James Stewart, Toshiro Mifune, Robert De Niro, and Cary Grant fill out those coffee-table books, while the great directors have normally relied upon a team of supporting players and technical personnel to get them from one project to the next. It may take a several more movies for Christopher Nolan to join the ranks of legends, but the appearance of Christian Bale and Michael Caine in The Prestige (2006) — following their turns in Batman Begins one year earlier — indicates that he intends to keep his favorites close as he delivers his spellbinding cinematic puzzles.

The Prestige tells the story of two competing magicians in turn-of-the-century London, both apprenticed to the same technician, John Cutter (Michael Caine) — an "ingénieur" who creates complicated illusions and sells them to top acts. American Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is a born showman with the commanding stage presence that indicates a bright future; Eastender Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) lacks Angier's charisma, but he's technically intuitive and more fully committed to the magician's art. The story opens as Borden finds himself on trial for Angier's murder, after which we learn that a bitter rivalry developed between the two after an on-stage accident killed Angier's wife — an accident for which Angier and Cutter blame Borden. Trying to restore their careers, Angier re-titles himself "The Great Danton" and begins a new act with Cutter and an attractive assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), but their showpiece — a disappearing dove trick — is sabotaged by Borden, who is developing his own act. It may lack Angier's showmanship, but it offers the greatest illusion yet seen on stage: "The Transported Man." Obsessed with Borden's stupefying trick, Angier sends Olivia to him as a new assistant — she provides Angier with his rival's coded diary, and after Angier kidnaps Borden's ingénieur, Borden tells him that the electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), recently in London, holds the secret of The Transported Man. Angier thus travels to America to seek out Tesla, only to discover that the reclusive genius, hiding in the high mountains of Colorado, is himself a compendium of mysteries.

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"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1973. In part, the axiom was meant to clarify the fundamentals of science fiction — illustrating that writers who explore future technologies need not explain their inner workings (often resulting in poor speculation or research errors), and instead simply postulate that they can exist. But Clarke's "Third Law" (as it is now known) also illustrates the bargain between illusionists and their audiences, because nobody would actually enjoy a magic trick if they thought it was really magic — instead, we accept that we are witnessing something technical, with the entertainment provided by the fact that the inherent truth of the matter is cleverly shrouded behind the performance of it. Today, we surround ourselves with "magic" technologies, everything from internal combustion to heavier-than-air flight to wireless Internet, and it's likely that, millions of years ago, the flint rocks that could spark and create fire were magical to those who first extracted their secret. But illusion does not work without narrative, the willing suspension of disbelief that allows us to enjoy movies in darkened rooms, or the magician's simple story — the three-part pledge, turn, and "prestige" — upon which all tricks are fashioned. The Prestige concerns the intersection between art and science, but those who commit their lives to it are neither pure artists nor scientists — they are practitioners and ingénieurs, often weighing the risks of each performance against their own personal "prestige" moments, when they can look upon an audience enraptured by the simple pleasure of amazement. For Borden and Angier, the sacrifice comes at a physical price; at other times, it becomes one of identity itself, from their murky pasts to the stage personas they adopt to enliven their acts. It's little wonder then that both would be drawn to Nikola Tesla, a solitary wizard in a universe of fakirs who's determined to harness not just magic, but the darkest forces of nature. The Prestige functions on several levels — notably the subtle textual shifts seen on a second viewing — but its "meta" value is multifold, being a story about telling stories, many of which are only partly true. Nolan's cut-up script (co-written by his brother Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest) invites the viewers to guess at red herrings, and careful viewing indicates plot elements that have yet to occur. But like a good illusionist, he only reveals the information he wants, and only when he chooses. The rest, you really don't want to know.

Buena Vista's DVD release of The Prestige offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Perhaps in keeping with the film's ethos, not too much is given away in the extras, which consist of the featurette "The Director's Notebook" with a look behind the scenes (19 min.) and four stills galleries. Keep-case
—JJB



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